Labor leaders insist unions still important
Courtesy photo, Montana State University-Northern photo archive
This Labor Day weekend many people will enjoy their day off with a barbecue or an outdoor activity to take advantage of the remnants of summer before autumn's short slide to freezing temperatures. But for some in Havre and across Montana, Labor Day means something more that should not be forgotten.
"It's not just another day off, " said Cal Long, member of Havre City Council and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "There's people that died on front lines to make the country a better place, so people could earn a decent living and have respect at their job sites.
"It's a way of honoring the people before who were persecuted and worked so hard to be what we are today. "
Havre and Montana have long histories in the labor movement, from the railroad and mining workers of the state's early days to today's larger system including academics, health care professionals and government employees at every level.
Long became part of the labor movement in the 1970s when he joined the union because it was required to work in the field he wanted to pursue. He got more involved because he wanted to know what that membership even meant.
"I tell the young guys, 'you pay a lot of money to be represented by the union; you might as well know what's going on, '" Long said. "I kind of like to be in the middle of it. "
This spring Long decided not to pursue another term as a council member so that he could make a bid for a position at the state level in IBEW. After not filing to run for the city in June, Long was not elected to the IBEW board in the July election. Long was not discouraged and plans to pursue the position again, because he feels that the work of the unions has been, and is, important.
"It's paramount because people need their rights, " Long said. "They need to be represented by somebody. They need to have somebody to back them up. And without the labor movement that wouldn't have happened in America at all. "
In his time as a union member, Long has seen interest and participation in the union drop, as it has across the country, even internationally. He sees this change as the result of a change in the public conversation about labor that has been largely political in nature, as battle lines have been drawn with unions and Democrats on one side and Republicans and "big business" on the other.
"The Republicans, the only time that they are interested in the working man or the middle class is election time, " Long said. "When they get elected as a grassroots or caring person, they don't vote to support labor. They don't vote to support working class people. They might tout their tax cuts, but as you can see just last night, people were complaining, 'well we don't have money to do this. we don't have money to do that. ' Well, that's the results of your tax cuts. It's not always for the working class or to support your local neighborhood. "
Kris Hansen, one of Havre's two Republican Representatives, begs to differ. Hansen said that unions "are and can be still relevant, " and the problems that they were formed to deal with are now gone for the most part.
"The role the unions played in the early days was important, " Hansen said of unions working to end extreme and unsafe working conditions. "In a lot of ways the unions have changed a lot of those conditions. There's legislation in place that mandates 40-hour week. There's legislation that mandates safety standards, the OSHA act.
"A lot of the things they fought against are gone now. "
That's not to say the unions are obsolete. Hansen said she sees the reasoning behind private unions, where employees can have some recourse if treated unfairly. What is seen as antagonism between unions and the Republican Party, Hansen said is with the union's leadership.
"There is a hostility to union leadership on the side of the Republican Party, " Hansen said. "I don't think most Republicans have a problem with unionization. "
She said she sees hard-working union members paying large amounts of dues that are then used by union leaders to pay for lobbying efforts in liberal social and fiscal policies, policies that Hansen feels a large number of the dues payers don't personally agree with.
Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, said that lobbying may have been a big part of the labor movements past, but that was not where they should be headed.
"Our real strength isn't in the political game, it's in the involvement game, " Ekblad said. "It's not engaging in what has become the dirty politics of the United States, which side can raise and spend more money and say nasty things about opponents. I want to ask candidates what they will do to support workers. "
While Hansen and other Republicans take issue with public employee unions, where, as Hansen describes, the fight for a larger percentage of profits "doesn't translate" to the government non-profit taxpayer-funded system, it seems everyone agrees that Labor Day is an important opportunity to pay homage to those who pour their hard work and sweat into making America.
"The fact is we are still a great nation. We still have people willing to work hard to make the country great, " Hansen said. "If we can convey the importance of the history and the future of American hard work, it's still worth doing. "
Or as Montana's Republican U. S. Rep. Denny Rehberg put it in a Labor Day column:
"I want to thank the hard working men and women that have made our state such a great place to live. It's thanks to your gritty work ethic and get-it-done attitude that Montana has a world-renowned reputation for an honest day's work. "