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On Labor Day

Today is Labor Day, when America celebrates its workers by giving them a day off from labor, but we thought we’d sit down and write something about it anyway.
Some say Labor Day is intended to celebrate the labor union movement, but they’ve always struck us as a bunch of pinkos, and here in the proudly right-to-work state of Kansas we’ve never seen it that way. Some of the workers at the local aircraft factories gather down at the Machinists’ Hall on the south side to make a big deal about it, and we hope they enjoy their hot dogs and beer and end-of-the-summer picnic as much as the rest of us, as they’re a good bunch of guys and gals by and large, and they’re even inclined to vote Republican when their gun rights or some other irksome sort of government busybody-ness is seen to be at stake, but we are nonetheless are inclined to justify our day of idleness by thus honoring all those who labor and are heavy-burdened, regardless of whether their employment is bargained collectively or by the choice of a free-born individual. These days only 6.6 percent of the private sector workforce is unionized, far down from from a mid-’50s peak of 35 percent, and gradually moving further downward with each passing Labor Day, and the dwindling crowds down at the Machinists’ Hall reflect that objective fact, and only those hidebound types who still swell up with tears every time they hear Joan Baez singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” and of course the people that Obama administration appointed by hook and crook to the National Labor Relations Board and the rest of the federal bureaucracy, seem to care.
The latest jobs report suggests that this overwhelmingly non-unionized sector of the country isn’t faring very well, with the official unemployment rate dropping to an almost respectable 5.1 percent but the real rate that includes those who aren’t even bothering to fill out applications anymore at more alarming 10 or more percents, as even the self-described socialist and sudden Democratic Party presidential front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders admits, and the growth in wages has barely kept apace a similarly suspiciously low inflation rate, but few think that a lack of union meddling is the culprit. Wichita isn’t so bad off as Detroit, which had a lot more hot dog-eaters and beer-drinkers at the United Auto Workers’ Labor Day picnics than the Machinists’ could ever draw around here, and most of us around here will assume that it not entirely coincidental. Whatever problems the American economy confronts, and there seems to be an endless supply of them at the moment, union goons and work stoppages and regulatory schemes that don’t take into account that increased employment compensation must follow increased productivity are not likely to prove satisfactory solutions.
Meanwhile, over in the more rapidly expanding public sector, union membership is still stuck in that Eisenhower-era Golden Age achievement of 35 percent. They’re plenty powerful enough to warm the soul of the late Joe Hill, too, and their members enjoy more compensation and job security and perquisites than their more largely non-unionized compatriots in the private sector. This does provide an argument for private-sector unionism, we suppose, but we can hope that people committed to careers with companies that do enjoy such protections from ruthless competition would be susceptible to the counter-argument that the public sector unions have grown too powerful and become a drag on the overall economy. We’re still hoping that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will get his due credit for taking on the public sector unions in his state, and surviving their brutal reprisals, but for now the latest Donald Trump reality show is getting higher ratings.
Better, then, to hoist a Labor Day beer to the average workingman and the average working woman. We mean that “working woman” in the most respectful way, of course, and to those who are offended we offer our most sincere apologies and our most heartfelt assurances that we only meant to be inclusive. It is altogether fitting and proper, as Abraham Lincoln might have said, that as a nation we take a day off to honor the labor that would otherwise be done. In the third chapter of Genesis we learn that work is a curse that God placed on Adam and his descendants, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,” in the third chapter of Colossians it is described as a blessing, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not human masters,” and our long experience of work suggests that both of these seemingly contradictory notions are true. Those who endure work’s burdens and exhilarate in its joys therefore deserve that moment of reflection and swig of beer.

We’ve got some seafood and steak that we’ll put on a tiny little charcoal grill in the backyard, and we’ll do our annual playing of Merle Haggard and the Strangers wailing those “Workin’ Man Blues.” It’s a big job just gettin’ by with nine kids and a wife, as the song explains, “but I’ve been a workin’ man dang near all my life, and I’ll keep on workin’, as long as my two hands are fit to use. I’ll drink a little beer in a tavern, and cry a little bit of these workin’ man blues.” There’s a heroic guitar solo by James Burton that seems to celebrate the satisfactions of a workin’ man’s life, and Merle’s whisky-smooth vocals sum up its miseries, and there’s some politically incorrect posturing about welfare, and no mention of unions. That song and Labor Day always make us happy to be Americans, so today we can only say, “Hey, hey, the workin’ man, a workin’ man like me.”

— Bud Norman

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