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By David Harder on September, 10, 2015

Is It Time To Reinvent Labor (Day)?

The following Linked-In article was published this past Monday. It has received so much attention we are making it available to our regular readers.

Today, remembering why we celebrate Labor Day is problematic. For most of us, it simply represents great clearance sales and celebrating that last bit of summer before we get back to work.

The fact is, Labor Day began in 1882  when the Knights of Labor organized a parade in New York to celebrate every type of worker, including unskilled and immigrant workers. It was a radical move at the time, just after we had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and many other anti-immigrant trends. Labor Day was meant, at the time, to celebrate all workers.

Unionized work has become so disorganized in its message that few of us even know unions had something to do with this holiday! As labor laws have become rather sophisticated, protection of workers through state and federal law is much more far reaching than the value provided by old-fashioned unions.

Why, God forbid, would I bring this up on labor day?

In My Life and Work, Henry Ford wrote that union leaders had a perverse incentive to foment perpetual socio-economic crisis as a way to maintain their power. Ford, as an employer, was a mixed bag. He paid workers the highest wage in the automobile industry but he also applied violence to keep unions at bay. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, unions certainly had their place. At times, they protected workers from terrible injustice and consequently developed a great deal of influence in just a few decades. By the 1940s Ford had signed one of the most favorable deals with the UAW.

Unfortunately, labor unions continue to perpetuate the notion that employers are untrustworthy and exploitive. When we introduce this element into the workplace, engagement and high morale rarely has an opportunity to breathe. When we create cultures where an employee can say, “It isn’t my job,” we’ve already lost the game.

Unions born out of violence perpetuate distrust and disruption. Few have reinvented their missions to include the needs of modern workers. Instead of using union dues for retraining and education, they often wastefully protect obsolete jobs. There is an exception: Creative unions in the entertainment industry go to great lengths in keeping their members current and in demand.

Other unions would do well to follow their examples.

I bring this up because if you are a union member paying union fees, it is time to ask the organization responsible for your well being to teach you to change, to teach you to stay competitive rather than trying to protect their turf through waging discord.

In 2003-2004 the United Food and Commercial Workers (UCFW) union launched a strike against Albertsons, Ralph’s and Vons markets. I drove two extra miles to go to a non-union store where I was treated graciously. But, one night, a sick dog required that I get special ingredients right away. In walking into the local Vons, the picket line hurled insults and threats.

When the strike ended, I vividly remember a conversation with a Ralph’s cashier. She had lived without a salary for many months.

I said, “You must be so happy to be back at work.”

She responded, “It is so good to have everything back to normal.”

As she made that statement, my eyes roamed over to a group of customers directly behind her, checking themselves out at Ralph’s new self-service kiosks.

The technology is already in place for a customer to fill up a grocery cart and check out in moments without human intervention. Consequently, the purpose of grocer employees will transform. 3-D printing is transforming the assembly line. Daimler is testing driverless trucks in Nevada. Truck drivers happen to be our country’s #1 job by males.

Everything is changing and if you pay a union to help you, demand they keep you from becoming obsolete.

While increasingly dubious, I am not an enemy of organized labor, I am simply promoting conscious labor. 

We have entered an era where union members have a right to expect training and reinvention services as part of their dues. It is also time for employers to demand that unions become actual partners in building tomorrow’s workplace.

Just like the rest of us, unions must reinvent to have any relevance.

Our workers deserve a day of recognition. Not only does America have the most powerful and diverse talent pool on earth, labor has contributed through the centuries to much of what we call life today.

But, the origins of unionized labor have little relevance in any developed country. Unions could still have their place but now is the time to provide the help that workers need. In that spirit, let us remind everyone to do their job in ways that matter.

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