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Labor Day Regression

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When I was a child growing up in the textile company town of LaGrange, Georgia, during the 1960s, we began school each year on Labor Day.  That was the town fathers' way of expressing contempt for the labor movement, and their determination to keep LaGrange union-free.  The word "union" was rarely uttered other than in whispers, and there were tales of organizers being beaten and locked up during brief efforts to unionize the mills in the 1930s and 1940s. 

As I grew older, I came to realize exactly how atavistic this deep hostility to the right of workers to organize really was by national standards.  Outside the Deep South, conservatives and business people often privately hated unions, but they had learned to live with them, and it wasn't unusual for Republican politicians to court union leaders and rank-and-file alike for support.  In my own memory, the partriarchal company-town mentality that I grew up with seemed as embarrasingly shameful as its psychological big brother, Jim Crow. 

Now, so many years later, even though Jim Crow is long dead, and unions represent a much smaller share of the work force (particularly in the private sector), the old Dixie attitude towards unions has become commonplace among conservatives from coast to coast.  The economy "can't afford" collective bargaining, conservatives say, as often as they say we "can't afford" universal health coverage, action on climate change, or much of anything that addresses the inequality and powerlessness that chronically afflict working people.  Even as conservatives have regressed from neo-Keynsianism to neo-Hooverism in their thinking about how to deal with a deep recession, they seem to have regressed in the direction of nineteenth century assumptions about unions as inherently illegitimate and anti-competitive. 

It's too bad that Labor Day has largely become a partisan holiday, but for that very reason, Democrats should celebrate it with genuine conviction, particularly at a time when no sane person can blame working people for the economic straits facing our country.  Those so richly blessed by our capitalist system have once again blighted the standard of living enjoyed by those struggling to get by.  Now more than ever, unions represent a last line of economic self-defense for millions of Americans, and we should honor them as such. 

This is a crosspost from The Democratic Strategist, where Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor.