NOTIONS: Has our love for labor been lost?

August 28, 2006

Bruce Hetrick is on vacation this week. In his absence, this column, which appeared on Sept. 1, 2003, is being reprinted.

The Labor Days of my memory are happy-sad affairs. The weather is muggy. The family's gathered at some park or pond, river or lake. Burgers sizzle on the grill. Frisbees fly through the air. And after supper, there's touch football with dads and brothers, kids and cousins, until dusk drops her shadowy curtain on yet another summer.

In my 45 years, Labor Day's been more about lazing and leisure than effort and initiative. Until the start of school crept into mid-August, Labor Day signaled the last blast of vacation. The last weekend of lifeguards whistling at troublemakers in the shallow end. The last of the dog days before autumns and winters of daily grind.

This isn't how it began, of course, this celebration of work. When Labor Day was established at the end of the 19th century, there were fairs and festivals, plaudits and parades. In black-and-white History Channel documentaries, union members march en masse down Main Street, flexing the muscles and manpower that shaped a nation and its mighty middle class. On the Labor Days its founders imagined, America pauses not to mark a birth or hail a hero-the stuff of other holidays-but to honor working people and the blessings of their industry.

To say that organized labor is not what it used to be would be an understatement. Union membership has fallen from more than 30 percent of the U.S. work force in the 1950s to just 13.2 percent today. In the private sector, only 8.5 percent of our workers are union members.

Folks smarter than I can tell you why unions have waned.

I suspect it results from government wage, benefit and safety regulations that mandate many of the things unions once had to advocate.

I suspect it results from some union shops costing more than non-union competitors.

I suspect it results from union-dominated manufacturing jobs lost to overseas workers willing to perform the same tasks for a fraction of the price.

I suspect it results from workers in unioncovered positions who let their colleagues pay dues and fight fights while they enjoy the fruits of a free ride.

And unions will say they struggle because management's squeezing them out.

Whatever the case, the resulting forecast is little reign for the Labor Day parade.

But despite the tribulations of Labor Day's founding fathers, must we also forgo the respect once celebrated on this day for hard work, honed skill and extraordinary achievement? En route to our picnics and pool parties, must we overlook our fellow travelers on the crusade for economic recovery?

Witness three stories.

I have a friend who is a school principal. He came to visit a few months ago. We talked about budget woes; the challenges of dealing with students and parents; and hiring frustrations.

Because his school system is stretched for cash, my friend must trim payroll costs wherever possible. And because teacher pay is based on seniority, not ability, he's forced to hire lots of lower-priced newcomers.

I asked him a hypothetical question: If he had an opening for a math teacher, could he hire the best, most experienced candidate or did he have to hire a rookie to save money?

His response: If the veteran were already on his system's payroll, he could steal from a fellow principal. But for a teacher from outside the system, he'd have to choose a bargain-basement novice over a 20-year veteran, three-time teacher-of-the-year.

For the sake of our children's education, I plead this Labor Day for talent.

Two colleagues arrived simultaneously at work. They rode together down the parking garage elevator and crossed through their building's lobby.

Passing the security desk, one greeted the guard by name, chatted with him about the weather and asked about his family. The other waited.

As they boarded a second elevator to their office, the colleague who hadn't spoken to the guard said, "How do you know him? I mean, I say hi and everything, but I've never even asked his name."

For the sake of my fellow servants, I plead this Labor Day for dignity.

A friend sought my advice. She'd started volunteering as a Spanish-language interpreter and wondered how she might use her newfound skills to benefit some not-forprofit organizations.

I asked how she got interested in Spanish.

She said she was working late one night when a janitor came by to clean. They started chatting and the janitor, a Mexican native, asked whether my friend spoke Spanish. She said she'd studied the language in school, but had forgotten nearly everything.

"Then you can learn again," the janitor said. And each evening, as she cleaned the office, the janitor taught my friend a new phrase.

For the sake of understanding, I plead this Labor Day for the abolition of hierarchy and the blessings of knowledge shared.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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