“I work for the union,
Cause she’s so good to me,
And I’m bound to come out on top,
That’s where she said I should be”
— “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”
In other words:
Happy Labor Day Weekend.
Jaime Robbie Robertson gets official credit for the lyrics and music of the haunting song above on an especially gifted group’s second album, released in 1969 and simply titled “The Band.”
But the late Levon Helm claimed the creation of that ode to organized labor in a rural setting was a group effort.
And the “Cause she’s so good to me” line captures the essence of union membership’s appeal.
Inevitably, though, when workers in large numbers conclude that unionizing is not good to — or for — them, the labor movement falls into decline.
That’s been the case in our nation over the last six decades.
In 1955, nearly 40 percent of private-sector American workers belonged to unions. According to numbers released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics early this year, that level has dropped to a scant 6.6 percent.
Over the same period, however, public-sector union membership has risen from 14 percent to 36 percent.
And many of us aging right-wingers still rightly leery of government-worker unions fondly recall when Ronald Reagan broke an illegal strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). On Aug. 3, 1981, less than seven months into his presidency, “The Great Communicator” told PATCO members who had walked off the job that they had just 48 hours to return.
As Reagan, former head of the Screen Actors Guild, put it then:
“I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike. Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union. I guess I’m maybe the first one to ever hold this office who is a lifetime member of an AFL-CIO union. But we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government’s reason for being.”
Then Reagan proved he wasn’t bluffing by firing 11,345 PATCO members who didn’t get back to work by his deadline.
Boeing sent a clear anti-union message of its own in 2009 by announcing that it would build a Dreamliner 787 facility in North Charleston.
Company officials said at the time that the nonunion workforce in South Carolina was a major factor in that decision.
The Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board initially supported the absurd notion that such a statement of the obvious by Boeing executives was illegal “intimidation” of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) at the company’s Washington state operation. After the IAM and Boeing reached an agreement, the NLRB finally dropped the bizarre case in 2011.
And the IAM backed out of a scheduled unionization election at the Boeing factory here in April.
It’s reasonable to figure that the union figured it would lose. The union must wait until next year before trying again.
Then again, why bother to make such a likely futile effort? After all, relatively few South Carolinians are, to borrow from The Band, union men — or women.
Consider, too, Gov. Nikki Haley’s hard-line perspective against unions.
OK, so she’s now drawing praise and even vice-presidential speculation for Wednesday’s uplifting speech to the National Press Club in Washington, where she offered sound advice to fellow Republicans about toning down anti-immigration rhetoric and reaching across racial lines.
Yet seven months ago in her annual State of the State speech, Haley fired this typically combative shot at organized labor:
“We have a reputation internationally for being a state that doesn’t want unions, because we don’t need unions.”
Enough union bashing — for now.
Instead, as reasonable people in and out of unions seek fair balances between business, workers, profits, job security, pay and benefits, remember:
If not for organized labor, the 40-hour work week, paid vacations, safe working conditions and prohibitions on child labor might not exist.
We do have some hard-working union members in our community, including those in the International Longshoremen’s Association.
Mutual interests should make management see that well-treated workers are more productive workers — and make workers see that unsustainable labor contracts make companies go out of business and jobs go away.
So give well-earned credit to the working stiffs, in and out of unions, who make America work.
That includes many essential folks who won’t have Labor Day off — police, firefighters, medical professionals and yes, even some particularly dedicated editorial writers.
But also be very wary if you hear a union pitch like this one from “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”:
“Now here comes a man with a paper and pen,
Tellin’ us our hard times are about to end
And then, if they don’t give us what we like
He said, ‘Men, that’s when you gotta go on strike!’ ”
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.