Decline of unions matches shift in wealth to richest Americans

For most Americans, Labor Day represents the end of summer, one last trip or barbecue with the family, the start of football season or one last chance to blow off steam before returning to school.

Few Americans know or sadly, even care, as to how or why Labor Day was established in the first place.

Labor Day was first proposed as a holiday in 1882, and Oregon became the first state in the nation to observe the holiday in 1887.

Labor Day was not recognized as a federal holiday until 1894, a mere six days after the end of the "Pullman strike."

Pullman was a small "company town" outside of Chicago, owned and operated entirely by the owner of the Pullman Palace Car Co. -- George Pullman.

The town was comprised of the 4,000 workers at Pullman's railroad car manufacturing plant. Pullman owned the banks into which workers wages were directly deposited and their housing rent subsequently debited. He owned the stores, restaurants and the town's only hotel, in which he lived lavishly.

When the economic panic of 1893 stuck, Pullman slashed workers wages on their 16-hour work days but refused to reduce rent or prices of goods in his town, fully putting the burden of the recession on the backs of his workers. When Pullman refused to meet with workers, they walked off the job.

The American Railway Union backed the Pullman workers and refused to handle trains with Pullman Cars in them.

The strike was broken up when President Grover Cleveland dispatched federal troops and in the ensuing carnage 13 workers were killed and another 57 injured.

In the aftermath, Congress approved legislation backed by Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, establishing a day that celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers.

Today, most people think that although Labor Unions played an important part in American history, they are no longer needed because we have laws protecting workers.

Sadly, these people couldn't be more wrong.

Corporations introduce legislation every day to weaken or destroy the very laws these people think will protect them. What happened in Wisconsin was just the tip of the iceberg. Unions are the only voice that workers have, unionized or not. Take away the Unions and you take away all protections for workers as well as their voice.

Union membership is at its lowest level since the early 1900s, about 13 percent nationally. Listen to some and they will blame all of the world's problems on unions. But just consider this: From 1946 to 1976, the bottom 90 percent American workers grew their average household income by 92 percent, while the top 1 percent of wage earners saw their incomes rise by 25 percent.

From 1976 to 2006, the bottom 90 percent saw a 10 percent growth, while the top 1 percent saw a 239 percent increase.

Happy Labor Day, America.

* Fred Rumsey is the political committee chairman for the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council.