On the day set aside to celebrate the role of working people in American economic life, it can be a little unnerving to contemplate the state of "labor" in 2012. In many ways, this has not been a particularly good year for working men and women, especially those listed in the ranks of organized labor.
In the first place, they've had to contend with the difficulty of finding work to do, with national unemployment stubbornly hovering over 8 percent -- between 9 and 10 percent in Illinois, according to the state Department of Employment Security. At the same time, unions, sometimes because of their own intransigence, are dealing with real setbacks, most notably in Wisconsin but in other states, too, and their public approval ratings as well has their membership rolls have plummeted. The nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute reports that between 1973 and 2011, union membership has dropped by more than half -- sliding from 26.7 percent of the American workforce to just 13.1 percent.
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What, then, are the signs of optimism for working people on this Labor Day 2012?
For one -- and this may seem to belie the high unemployment figures -- there are jobs to do. A rebirth of manufacturing is stirring in America and in the suburbs, with enough vitality that manufacturing executives and Harper College announced just weeks ago a new effort to attract and train people to meet a critical shortage of qualified workers for good-paying manufacturing jobs.
For another, labor is demonstrating a growing recognition of the real economic challenges facing managers and cooperating in previously unheard-of ways to contribute to stability and the opportunities for growth. On a macro level, at a time when unions might have been expected to demand more from resurging automakers, negotiations between the Big Three and the United Auto Workers produced significant concessions on both sides and concluded surprisingly smoothly. Locally, the word "collaboration" was heard time and again following successful negotiations in Elgin Area School District 46, Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128, Mundelein High School District 120, Palatine Township Elementary District 15, and, just this week, Indian Prairie Unit District 204. The resulting contracts were good for districts, teachers, taxpayers and, above all, students.
Sure, difficult challenges remain. The out-of-touch Chicago Teachers Union appears determined to hold up progress and fiscal responsibility in the city's school system. The struggle to fix Illinois' crippled pension system for all public employees and to moderate the stultifying hold that public unions continue to exercise over state politics remains painful and divisive. On a national scale, the growing gap between executive compensation and pay for front-line workers is troubling and portentous.
The labor realities of 2012 are very different from those in the past. Thankfully, and largely because of the efforts of organized working people, the labor of today is not the labor from the dawn of the 20th century when sweat shops ruled. Nor is it labor from the post-World War II era when unions were in their glory. Rather, labor clearly is trying to find its way in a sort of middle-ground era where, perhaps, the biggest challenges are not pay or benefits or workplace safety but simply jobs, the lack of them and the lack, in many cases, of suitable training for those that exist.
The positive side of the coin is that the opportunities are there to get issues like all these under control, and in many tough situations, people at all levels appear willing to seize them. So, while working people may not exactly be in a celebratory mood this Labor Day, they still have legitimate cause to hope for better things to come and, at that, the kind of hope that is in everybody's interest.