Labor Day historically marks the last day of the Minnesota State Fair. It is the transition from summer to fall. Many families make their last camping trip. For decades, we tuned in to the Jerry Lewis Telethon as he raised millions to fight muscular dystrophy over the Labor Day weekend. If you were among the multitudes who got misty-eyed as he closed the event by singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, you were not alone.
Most of us have forgotten the origins of the holiday. It is a day set aside by Congress for the nation to recognize the contributions of working class Americans and the labor movement. It was seen as a balm to heal some of the wounds created by bitter, sometimes violent, strikes that had ripped through our mills and mining towns.
Our ancestors endured long hours in filthy sweat shops, little more than indentured servants. Difficult as it may be for some Republicans to admit, the labor movement played an important role in altering the arc of history. Thanks to the tenacious efforts of the early labor leaders like Samuel Gompers and an unlikely entrepreneur named Henry Ford, Americans are no longer forced to work 12 hour days, six days a week to earn a meager living. Many of us baby boomers enjoyed greater opportunities thanks to the higher wages that our fathers brought home.
Yes, Henry Ford deserves a rightful place among America’s working class heroes. Ford shocked the industrialized world in 1913 by offering to pay his people $5.00 a day, more than double what was then the going rate. Why? Because Henry Ford was going to build an automobile for average Americans. He deeply believed that workers in his plant needed to be paid enough so that they could afford to buy the product they were producing. His generous pay package proved to be good for his bottom line as well. By dramatically reducing his turnover rate, he cut training costs.
His revolutionary idea was not well received among the robber barons and financiers on Wall Street. Henry Ford was unfazed. He forced other industrialists to follow his lead.
Somewhere, both corporate and union leaders lost their way. The CEO’s lost track of the Ford axiom. The unions lost their focus on improving conditions for their people. They increasingly became absorbed with politics, Democrat politics. Companies raced to find cheaper ways to produce their products. Once the door was opened to China, they began closing their plants in the United States. Workers, their families and the towns where those companies grew were callously abandoned.
Industries that couldn’t export jobs to Asia, began to import cheaper (mostly illegal) labor from south of our border. This became especially prevalent in the Agricultural sector. Companies learned to speak Spanish. They quickly figured out that these illegal workers were far more malleable. They worked hard for less money. And since they lived in constant fear of deportation, they would never file a complaint with the Department of Labor.
Not surprisingly, union bosses also found that these illegal workers could be quickly corralled into their unions and pay dues. Together with their political friends, they saw this growing pool of illegals as predictable voters. They could easily be coerced into voting Democrat and to re-elect union leaders. Both the companies and the unions benefited as the federal government looked the other way.
No one seemed to give a damn that real wages for working Americans were in decline. Our great middle class was being hollowed out. A Republican President foolishly told us that free trade with China would benefit all Americans and this illegal labor was simply doing jobs “that Americans just wouldn’t do.” He somehow forgot to add “at the below-market wages that companies wanted to pay.”
Along came Donald Trump with a promise to Make America Great Again. He had seen what the unholy alliance of multinational corporations, union bosses and the DC swamp was doing to working Americans. He began straight away to renegotiate trade agreements and redefine fair trade, demanding that China play by the rules. He started defending our borders and enforcing laws that were for too long ignored.
Wall Street squealing notwithstanding, the results of his efforts can be plainly seen. Manufacturing jobs are coming back. Real wages, for the first time in over a decade are on the rise. Unemployment in all sectors and demographics is at record lows. The minimum wage is being raised. Not by government edict, but by market forces.
The New York Times won’t say it on this Labor Day, so it’s left to us. The unvarnished fact is that President Donald Trump has already earned his place as one of America’s greatest working class heroes. Taking his place along side giants like Samuel Gompers and Henry Ford.
Gil Gutknecht served six terms each in the Minnesota and the U.S. House of Representatives.