Today is Labor Day. It is the oddest of American national holidays.
It honors an institution, the labor union, to which only about 1 in 10 Americans belongs. A higher percentage than that actively disdains the very idea of unions.
As if to underline the irony, unionized teachers in Philadelphia will observe the holiday by meeting to discuss how to respond to demands for major givebacks.
Public sector unions are becoming nearly all that’s left of an ever-dwindling union movement. Unionization in the private sector has shrunk to 7 percent of the workforce.
That’s a big reason why real wages for most Americans have stagnated even as the productivity of American labor hit an all time peak in 2012. Higher productivity creates wealth, but the top part of the income scale is grabbing most of the fruits.
In this landscape, public sector unions sit as a big, fat target. Why? Well, for one thing, they don’t directly create wealth. Instead, they absorb tax revenues.
And the American taxpayer makes for a very crabby boss. This has been true ever since the original Tea Party. What’s more, ever since the era-shaping rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, Americans have been trained to regard government primarily as an engine of waste and imposition, and public sector works as parasitic dullards.
Given all that, it’s a wonder anyone willingly takes a public sector job these days. Government today would likely be far more effective if only we hadn’t spent the last 30 years telling our brightest young people that only losers work in government.
Still, some mighty talented, dedicated people do bless the public sector, working to ensure our streets are safe, our water clean, our children taught.
Every workforce has its cheats and its nincompoops. But in the public sector, more than any other kind, the workforce’s image gets defined by the worst in its ranks.
Thanks to this chronic disrespect, public workers tend to be touchy, resistant to change, crouching behind walls of defensive rhetoric.
But that hunkering down just compounds their alienation from potential allies, the people who believe in government, but see that it must adjust old reflexes to meet the demands of new times.
Public unions desperately need to find, at long last, a rhetoric persuasive enough to counter the lingering popular appeal of Reagan’s formulations. As of yet, in Philly at least, they have not.