Minni’s Morning Coffee: Labor Laws Stale?

Labor Laws Stale? Detroit Could Redefine Labor Movement

There’s a famous slogan that goes: The Labor Movement “The folks who brought you the weekend.”

Today is the day we have set aside to honor the American workforce. And since we all belong to the workforce in some way, it’s a time to honor ourselves. But before we get drunk on beer and silly-full on barbeque, let’s reflect on not just the history, but the future of labor, especially in Detroit, a city facing gigantic labor conundrums: our very own Detroit.

And it’s not just the weekend that the American labor movement created. Thanks to the workers who started organizing in the late 1800’s through the movement’s peak in the 1930’s through 1950’s, there are laws banning child labor, a mandated minimum wage, and a 40-hour week, among other protections.

Back then, organized labor was not presumed to be synonymous with unions. It was just workers banding together to demand better conditions and pay. Unions were the famous product of this, but as stated, not the only one.

In Detroit, people are divided over the importance of unions, as we know them. In the private sector, unions have diminished greatly since the peak in the 1930s and 1950’s. But in municipalities they have stayed mostly intact.

That’s a problem in cashed-depleted Detroit, where some argue that union wages and benefits are bleeding the city dry. Some would posit that if a labor union were a car, it would be an inefficient, obsolete “clunker” best scrapped for a newer design.

Unions, ironically, have been seen as big forceful machines rather than organized workers protecting their rights.

An opinion piece in the Statesman Journal this morning titled “Labor Day Not Union Day” stated:

“Most Americans realize that Labor Day is about celebrating workers, not union bosses, but that won’t stop Big Labor’s apologists from seizing the spotlight to demand more power.”

Today, Detroit’s unions are stewing in the still before a storm. The storm being Election Day on November 6 when voters chose the fate of Public Act 4,  legislation that could dissolve collective bargaining contracts and ultimately lead to the privatization of much of the municipal workforce in cities across the state, namely Detroit.


Now the question for all of us to ponder over our labor day fare is this: How can we keep fair conditions for workers while updating or removing the traditional union model?


The labor movement is still alive today, although perhaps people are more complacent now that they have weekends and minimum wage. But there’s a lot of work to be done in redefining labor in the 21st century.


The silver lining to the painful cuts Detroit workers have coming is that maybe it will force people to organize around designing a new labor model worthy of the 21st century.

Detroit is in a position to lead the nations union question, to take the hard times and demand new concepts, something that will work. Instead of complaining about cuts, and saying what doesn’t work, let’s focus on what does, what could, and what will.

One idea that comes to mind is the 30 for 40 movement geared to “reinvent” the workday. The idea is that people work 30 hours a week for 40 hours (or full time) pay. Because of the 6 hour workdays, people are more productive. At least that’s what Ron Healy, the man leading the 30 for 40 movement thinks.

An article on PBS.org highlighted this new concept and the man behind it:

“The trend in America is to work longer and longer hours. But Ron Healey, the Founder and CEO of 30/40, has convinced a growing list of skeptical CEOs that less is more. He’s swayed a number of companies to switch to six-hour shifts and still pay workers for a full eight-hour day. Healey says the added expense of hiring more workers pays off because they’re more productive, happier and — most importantly — loyal to the company.”

Maybe Healy’s onto something here. While it’s by no means a perfect model that will solve the unions question, it’s a step toward a new kind of thinking not forged in the fire of times long passed. 




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