Labor Day 2013 News Stories
David Snodgress | Herald-Times September 2, 2013
It’s Labor Day, a day off from work and in many ways the unofficial end of summer.
It’s a final chance for pool parties, all-day grilling sessions or a lazy day before fall schedules kick in for good. If you’re traveling, you might run into a parade or two.
The day is also a holiday with a history tied tightly to the labor movement. The U.S. Department of Labor’s history of Labor Day says it is dedicated to “the social and economic achievements of American workers.”
That history hedges on which 1800s labor leader was the first to suggest the day — it appears to be either American Federation of Labor cofounder Peter J. McGuire or machinist Matthew Maguire. Regardless, Labor Day grew over the years from that first celebration, which took place in 1882 in New York City on Sept. 5, a Tuesday. Today, it’s a national holiday annually observed on the first Monday of September.
Organized labor is still a part of many of today’s issues, from the fight a few years ago over collective bargaining legislation in Wisconsin to fast-food workers across the country striking for higher wages last week.
So, more than 130 years after the first Labor Day, The Herald-Times interviewed some Bloomington-area labor leaders to see what the day means to them, how they view the state of the local labor movement and where unions fit into the workforce today.
Raising all boats
Tom Szymanski is labor representative for Local 725 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The local covers 15 counties in Indiana and Illinois with a main office in Terre Haute and a field office in Bloomington.
Q: What does Labor Day represent to you?
Szymanski: It’s definitely a celebration of all the hard work that the men and women have continuously done in this country and this state for the last 100 years.
It’s a celebration of their hard work ethic, the time they put in to make this country strong. The people with millions and billions of dollars who run companies could not do it without the worker.
Q: Is this holiday specifically for union members?
Szymanski: As we are able to have a good wage, that puts pressure on the nonrepresented companies to make sure they’re paying their workers something close to what we’re making. What we do is raise all boats. Once we start losing unions, it’s a downward spiral.
Q: Are we losing unions?
Szymanski: In the last 100, 150 years, the increase in industrialization helped labor get a hold in the factories and get representation. Since the 1970s and 1980s, what we’ve seen is the outsourcing of jobs, shipping them overseas to Mexico and China. Probably a third were union, but a majority were nonunion.
Q: What is the state of organized labor in the area and the country?
Szymanski: Finally, we’re at a point where we got to a living wage, and labor unions were able to help bring pensions and health insurance to families.
As the decline of unionization has happened in this country, it’s interesting to see that the pensions have gone away. It’s important to make sure people understand that the unions brought families up to a new class where they were able to secure pensions. Pensions are going down. It’s not a coincidence that as unionization rates decline, the pension rate for families has fallen also.
Q: What about the argument that unions stand in the way of economic progress?
Szymanski: Unions aren’t a hindrance to this economy. They help raise income taxes. They bring money to local economies. They offer health insurance.
Q: What else does your union do?
Szymanski: We have a top-notch training program. Our apprentice program is a five-year program to give quality training to workers who are doing very, very dangerous work. It’s all self-funded from union members and contractors. No taxpayer money is used in that funding.
Q: Often, the relationship between union and company is seen as being one of conflict. Does that have to be the case?
Szymanski: If the company isn’t making money, we don’t make money. We don’t have jobs.
We work very well with our contractors. Over the last 100 years, we’ve had great relationships.
Parades not a priority
Bobby Minton is the secretary-treasurer and business manager of Local 741 of the Laborers International Union of North America. It serves 15 counties and has its headquarters south of Bloomington.
Q: What do you and the members of your union think about on Labor Day?
Minton: People take for granted health and welfare benefits and pensions. They don’t realize that over the years, people sacrificed raises and went on strikes to get the benefits we have today.
Q: So will union members actually talk about this with their families on the holiday?
Minton: We talk about it. It’s in the background, too.
We used to have parades. But in our industry, this time of year they’ve worked so many hours over the summer that they’re tired. They get a day off and they want to enjoy it with their family and spend it at home.
Q: So this day off comes at a good time if you’re in the building trades?
Minton: Normally. But this year has been kind of peculiar. Usually it rains up until about June and then it dries up and we have it dry for the rest of the year. It never seemed to quit raining this year.
With our building and homes jobs, if you have it up under a roof it doesn’t really affect them much. But when you’re out here on I-69 and just coming out on the ground and about to get started ...
Q: Where does this union fit in as the labor landscape changes?
Minton: We do every facet of construction. We do roads, buildings, pipelines, gas, water. We’re in every facet of the industry. And right-to-work is going to hurt us some, but our membership is pretty strong.
Q: Gov. Mitch Daniels signed Indiana’s right-to-work law in December 2012. It basically prevents labor contracts that require non-union members to pay union fees for representation. It’s affected you?
Minton: It’s a kick in the gut, but we’ll get through it.
So many people, they see the wage and think it’s a very good wage. But they don’t realize our people don’t get paid holidays. They don’t get sick days. They may have to drive 50 to 60 miles to work one day. And $4 gas is pretty hard to take.
A lot of people think it’s really good money, but they don’t take into consideration that you only may work eight or nine months a year.
Q: Taking a step back, how have labor laws changed over the years?
Minton: They’ve gotten worse over the years. When I first started in 1978, you either went on a job that was 100 percent union or 100 percent nonunion. Now there’s a little bit of everything on the jobs.
Q: Has the way society views organized labor changed?
Minton: If you look back last year and the year before last with Wisconsin, collective bargaining was really more popular than what they thought.
Q: What else do you want to discuss about Labor Day and unions?
Minton: We have a training school. They do blueprint reading, lasers, everything.
The more you know, the more you’re going to work. You don’t want a bunch of people out there putting up a building or running sewer lines or electric lines that aren’t trained or don’t know what they’re doing.
Teammates with management
Scott Rugenstein is the president of Local 832 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which meets at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus. Mike Baker is on its executive board.
Q: Do you think people realize the history of the labor movement and Labor Day?
Baker: It’s unfortunate, but so many people have a lack of knowledge about the history. They just seem to think that the company or the university loves them so much that they give them the days off and give them their work boots and glasses.
That’s not the reason. It’s because it was fought for and negotiated in a legal framework for a more equal platform.
Q: Is it different now than it used to be?
Baker: When I came out here at the university, probably 80 percent of the service people were in the union, because they were here — a lot of them — before there was a union. They knew what it was like to be told, “You’re going to work Saturday.”
Q: Has labor law played a part in those changes?
Rugenstein: Indiana, basically, is not the best place for labor to be. I’d like to see a lot of laws changing. Arbitration. Collective bargaining.
Q: What do you see as your role at the university?
Rugenstein: We’re an advocate for growth. We’re also teammates with management. That side is rarely shown or seen.
Baker: We work together every day. Every day we draw policy. We’re not always going to agree with them, and they’re not always going to agree with us. But we try to work it out so we can keep things working and keep the university safe and clean.
Rugenstein: Another thing we do a lot of is HR. They’re our liaison in a lot of situations.
But our meetings are legitimately, “What is the problem at the moment?” Stuff that you probably heard at the dinner table at home. Someone’s being accused of this. Someone’s being laid off.
A lot of it is knowing who to talk to and knowing who to ask questions of. That’s kind of where we’re involved. Anything short of legal counsel.
Terre Haute Tribune Star
Parade, beans, banquet fill a day of celebration
TERRE HAUTE — Working together is the symbol of Labor Day, John C. Zody, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, told about 190 people attending the 32nd annual Labor Day Banquet on Monday night.
Zody was born in Vigo County at Union Hospital. His father went to high school at the former Gerstmeyer High School, and his family moved to Martinsville when he was 2. He has two aunts that live in Vigo County.
“I look at the battles and fights that organized labor and the Democratic Party have been in together,” he told the audience, gathered at the Holiday Inn. Zody recalled a rally for prevailing wage in March 1995, when he worked for the late Gov. Frank O’Bannon.
“The whole government center, the west end of the government center was full,” he said. “I don’t think there has been a rally at the Statehouse that has matched the size of that. That was such a pivotal moment in the General Assembly.”
Other important battles include 2011, when the Indiana General Assembly voted to enact the right-to-work law, which removed a require that a worker be required to join a union at a workplace.
“It was another tough fight, but we stuck together,” he said. “It doesn’t always have to be partisan. When we [Democrats and Republicans] can come together, it does come down to common sense. There are opportunities there. You are involved in this [Democratic] movement because you believe in a better quality of life and the opportunities that can come in Indiana,” Zody said.
The Democratic Party, Zody said, has to focus on elections next year and through 2016.
“We are all Hoosiers first, no matter what party you are or no matter what you do for a living,” Zody said. “When we remember that and we remember it does come down to common sense, making sure our friends and neighbors have the best opportunities to succeed with education, with health care and access to that ... it is about making those choices easy and affordable and making sure people have a great job that they can live and work in Indiana and be successful. Those are my goals,” Zody said.
Before Zody’s keynote speech, Mayor Duke Bennett, a Republican, also said improving the city and county “is all about common sense. I really appreciate working with all of you and your leadership teams and rest of the members of your organizations, who are so positive when it comes to Terre Haute.”
Bennett said a carpenters union complained of slow state approval for building permits. The mayor said he has made calls to the state building commissioner to try to speed such approvals.
~ In awards, Mary Harvey, a bus driver for the past 17 years and financial secretary of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 1064, was awarded the Pete Culver Award, the highest award of the evening.
“It means a lot to me,” Harvey said. “If there is a volunteer list, I am usually trying to be on the top of it. I always willing and ready to help out with any community projects.”
Other award recipients are: Public Servant, Mick Love, Harrison Township Assessor; Community Service Award, Bob Baesler, owner of Baesler’s Market; Local Union award went to the Sheetmetal Workers Local 20; Local Union Member Award went to Paul Pupska of the IBEW Local 725; and Media Award, Jim Avelis, photographer for the Tribune-Star;
The banquet was the final event of the day, after a parade which had 41 entries and about 2,800 people and a bean dinner lunch, said Bill Treash, president of the Wabash Valley Central Labor Council.
Treash told the banquet audience that the AFL-CIO state convention is scheduled to be held at the Holiday Inn Dec. 2 through Dec. 5.
Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard. firstname.lastname@example.org.