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Oregon: First to legislate Labor Day Feb. 21, 1887

U.S. fast food workers demand fair wages
U.S. fast food workers demand fair wages
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

As we honor Labor in Oregon, we’re reminded that wages and Labor Union membership sit near or at record lows. What happened Oregon?

While I could spin my salute to Labor into a sensational news story full of corporate deceit and organized wage and benefit concessions, leading to the downgrade of the middle class and the skilled worker, I believe I’ll just kick back, pop a beer tab and eat a hotdog. As I adjust myself for the tenth time at my desk, attempting to ignore the pain in my lower back, knee and wrist, I’m reminded of the 2 decades spent in the temple of hard labor under the title of skilled craftsman.

I too turned my back to organized Labor at the urging of a boss that was unwilling to pay Labor Union benefits, health, welfare and retirement. As a young construction buck of the early 1970s I’d signed on the bottom line of an A.F.L C.I.O United Brotherhood of Plasterers and Painters Union apprenticeship program. Completing a 4 year program in 18 months was one thing, finding a contractor that had consistent Union wage paying work for a card holder was another. Today, Labor Union memebership is at its lowest level in decades.

That’s right folks, the non manufacturing and hospitality Labor Unions in the United States were on the way out by the early 1970s. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1954, 35% of all Labor in the U.S. was union sanctioned, by the middle of my construction career(1985) membership was cut in half, as were wages and benefits.

It takes a collective mindset to preserve and promote Union labor.

Although Oregon union sanctioned labor remains higher than the national average, in 2013 fewer than 208,000 Oregon skilled workers were collectively represented by Labor Unions. According to the Fed, 22,000 jobs evaporated in Oregon(2012 through 2013) and with them went higher paying union jobs. Oregon union membership dropped 32,000 in 2013.

The math indicates that despite a national economic uptick, Oregon continues to lose public and private sector higher paying union jobs.

Has organized Labor lost ground under the market pressure of a World economy dictating Oregon markets, or has Labor simply made concessions on wages and benefits under the threat of lost jobs?

Are union health and welfare benefits being usurped by Federally mandated health and well care programs? Or, have developers, importers and distributors undercut Labor in a quest for yet greater profits at the expense of the worker? Perhaps a bit of all the aforementioned.

While President Obama toots the horn of socialism, all but the poorest in America seem to benefit while the working middle class is downgraded and the wealthy count stock dividends. There are only so many Federally funded road projects in the U.S., “shovel ready” was and remains largely a political bird-song.

According to U.S. Labor Bureau Statistics, on average union represented skilled labor earns $200 more per week than his or her’s non union counterpart. Simple math indicates that that’s $10,000 per annum. For most workers that’s groceries, a night out on the town and a monthly car payment. Without collective bargaining many if not most workers are stuck in financial doldrums.

Buy American?

We can talk about buying American, but what’s that really mean today. At best, most manufactured and assembled U.S. tangibles are assembled or constructed with “world” components and raw materials. Outside of a local or regional grown or crafted good, there's no getting around it, we live in a “World” community. However, on- shore commercial and institutional construction, manufacturing, public and private sector infrastructure and civic projects can support Labor Union sanctioned wages and benefits, and they should.

Good paying jobs promote spending and higher property and durable goods taxation. Most workers receiving an above average wage tend to eat and live healthier. They send their children to college and give back to the community. And, they receive earned disability compensation when needed and retirement when fully divested.

That’s the benefit of collective bargaining and organized Labor. Factory jobs often suck the lifeblood out of the worker. Construction labor can and is often physically debilitating. Those workers willing to put in the time deserve compensation at the end of the shift. Not only is Labor Day in recognition of the Labor movement, it’s in recognition of all that have participated in the building of (still) the World’s greatest economy and democratic opportunity. It's our responcibility as working Americans to demand fair wages and benefits.

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