When Gerald Nelson joined the workforce back in 1949, labor unions were strong. While he participated in a strike or two over the years, the rights and dignity of the “working man” were usually recognized and represented.
Jump forward 79 years and Nelson now has his doubts.
“Since then, things have really taken a dash to the wrong direction,” said Nelson, seated by Evelyn, his wife of 67 years. “People better wake up or they’ll have to fight the same fights I was involved in a long time ago for the rights and dignity of the working man. We learned that lesson already, so hopefully we get things back in order real soon.”
Nelson, clad in a Korean War cap, joined several hundred Missoula residents on Monday to celebrate Labor Day. Unlike years past when the holiday was best reserved for a welcome day off, this year’s event has taken on new meaning.
When Ariel LaVenture woke up Monday morning, the day’s significance set in. As a member of the Missoula Independent’s newly formed labor union, she’s fighting Lee Enterprises – a stock-traded corporation that pays its top executives seven-figure bonuses – to preserve the jobs of those who create the company’s weekly newspaper.
“This has always been a day off for me, but today I woke up and realized there was this new meaning behind it,” LaVenture said. “All these folks are essentially fighting for a positive work environment, living wages and great health care.”
Unions have long argued that investing in America’s workers is an investment in the future of the country. But most of those present on Monday believe the nation’s workers are under assault, and the rights they gained in the early half of the 20th century have been whittled away, bit by bit.
President Donald Trump last week announced salary freezes for the country’s federal workers. Missoula City Council member Jesse Ramos lobbied to cut raises for the city’s non-union workers, including his own. House Republicans are pushing to cover the $2 trillion cost of their tax bill by cutting public services, including Medicare and Medicaid.
Ben Dawson, president of the Missoula Central Labor Council, said America’s workers are on perilous ground. The achievements won in the past, such as Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act, are under attack.
“Many of those protections have been stripped over the past 70 years,” Dawson said. “That’s where the fight is, reminding people they do have a voice and they do have rights. When we stand up, we can change things in the system.”
Dawson added that workers’ rights doesn’t have to be a partisan issue.
“If you believe in keeping jobs in America, keeping them high paying, that a worker deserves the dignity to go to work and earn a fair wage for his family and not live on government subsidies, then we’re all in the same house,” he said.
The lack of wage growth in America has baffled economists and policymakers, who thought the record number of job openings and the low unemployment rate would result in raises for workers. But so far, according to the Washington Post, those wage gains have been slight, and the scant increases have been eclipsed by rising prices.
Linda Gillison, a member of Missoula Moves to Amend – an organization bent on reversing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling – believes low wage increases and large corporate profits have helped the labor movement regain some of its past strength.
Workers, she said, are fed up.
“We’re very sad about the state of labor in America,” she said. “The weakness of organized labor is why salaries haven’t been going up all these decades. We’re in contact with quite a few people from the labor movement, because we believe that Moves to Amend is an actual ally with labor.”
Montana was the first state in the country to pass equal pay for equal work. That happened back in 1919, though state Sen. Diane Sands said women are still fighting for equal pay nearly a century later.
“Montana wages are still among the lowest in the country overall, and women are about 25 cents below that,” said Sands. “We still have a long way to go in terms of ensuring people get decent paying jobs and the benefits.”
Sands said she often hears from people who don’t get health insurance from their employer, can’t afford the deductible, or can’t balance the cost of housing with essential medicines.
Boil it down, she said, and money is still the fundamental issue.
“The growing disparity between the rich and the poor is what’s holding it back,” she said. “We have this unprecedented conglomerate of all this wealth in the hands of a few, and they’re not paying decent wages. It’s important for people to realize that without unions, you really don’t have good benefits for working people.”