Labor’s evolution of meaning

Today marks the first Labor Day since the Boeing special legislative session, the comply-or-we’ll-bolt Machinists’ contract vote, the unseemly parade of toadying politicians, and the cavalier kicking of Northwest SPEEA jobs to southern California.

Do the past 11 months signal the death knell for organized labor or, with outrage over income inequality and the push for a higher minimum wage, a reawakening? An either/or declaration trivializes a complicated narrative, evolving state demographics and a new-generation workforce.

We know this: Manufacturers ignore the Northwest’s one-of-a-kind labor force at their own peril. Vital economies manufacture things. A skilled workforce, good schools, a thriving local culture: These are interdependent parts which market themselves. They endure longer than a pushover political culture.

For generations, Labor Day, harbinger of the school year and the end of summer, was embedded in the Northwest’s political and social fabric. Now, it’s back-to-school sales, discount mattresses and soaking in the bullheaded rays of filtered sun. American workers? Leave advocacy to the activists.

Conceived in the 1880s, Labor Day predates Washington statehood (Oregon was the first to make it a holiday) and aims to burnish the achievements of American workers. Thanks to trade unionism, Americans enjoy such givens as the weekend, child labor laws, an eight-hour workday, health care and workplace safety. With unions a scapegoat for all that ails business (a talking point for those hankering to emulate anti-union redoubts like South Carolina and Mississippi) it’s worth revisiting labor’s legacy.

On Lombard Street in Everett, the red-brick Snohomish County Labor Temple is a workers’ citadel, a reminder of a labor movement that scratched, punched and picketed for living-wage jobs (Its ironic fallout: those with living-wage jobs who now castigate unionism.) On its south face, the painted banner looks old school. Protect Your Interest, Buy Union Label. Use Union Services, “The Job You Save May be Your Own.”

The building’s preserved-in-amber exterior belies the movement’s 21st century mission, adapting to an evolving service sector and a declining manufacturing base. Instead of pulp-and-paper workers, there are nurses and homecare workers and retail salespeople. Labor’s political muscle has weakened, just as the middle class is feeling the post-recession squeeze.

We need to be grateful for what we have. An essential component of a vital economy is a well-educated workforce earning a living wage. And we have organized labor to thank for that.

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