At last, a Labor Day that means more than just the long weekend when we squeeze the last precious drops out of summer. If your mind doesn’t touch down on the plight of working people sometime Monday, then you haven’t been paying attention.
Last week, the 40-day standoff between Market Basket supermarket workers and a corporate board blinded by its own greed ended triumphantly with the return of worker-friendly CEO Arthur T. Demoulas.
Part strike by distribution workers, part boycott by customers who supported those workers by staying away, the summer-long spectacle marked a sharp pivot away from “shut up and be thankful you have a job” and toward “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore.”
Meanwhile, 800 telecommunications workers here in Maine are among the 2,000 in New England bracing themselves for a possible lockout or strike after FairPoint Communications pulled the plug on negotiations with the employees’ unions. At issue is the company’s proposal, now being unilaterally implemented, whereby it can use outside contract employees to perform what the unions insist is rightfully their work.
So is this the coincidental overlap of two big business stories that dominated the normally sleepy days of late summer? Or is something more significant, perhaps even historic, going on here?
“I think they are waking up to the fact that we are all in this together,” said AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, speaking of union and non-union workers alike, in a telephone interview Friday. “We’re not shy about saying the labor movement created the middle class in this country. And with the decline of the labor movement, you’ve seen the decline of the middle class.”
Gebre was en route to Maine to deliver Monday’s keynote address at the Portland Labor Day Breakfast, hosted by the Southern Maine Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He returns to Maine – he was last here to cheer on the fledgling Maine Lobstermen’s Union – under no illusions.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.1 percent of Maine workers were union members in 2013. That’s just below the national average of 11.3 percent and part of a slow but steady decline since 2003, when union membership in Maine stood at 12.8 percent.
It’s also a far cry from the heady days when this state’s landscape was punctuated by shoe, textile and paper mills and unions that played a monumental role in the economic health not only of their rank and file, but of the community as a whole.
Those days, Gebre notes, are long gone and not coming back.
“Labor was always considered to be the textile mills or the paper mills. That’s not what it is anymore. We don’t do those things in this country anymore,” Gebre said. ” So we have to organize the workers who are working in this country.”
That Gebre himself would be leading such a charge is in itself testament to a nation – and thus a workforce – in flux.
Now 45, he was born in Ethiopia. He escaped his war-torn country when he was 14, walking for weeks before he reached a refugee camp in Sudan.
There, he obtained political asylum and moved to Los Angeles, where he finished high school, earned a college degree, became a U.S. citizen and rose in both political and labor circles to the point where he now symbolizes America’s changing worker: immigrant, non-white, accustomed to severe hardship yet increasingly restive with an economic system rigged for the rich.
Gebre, like everyone, watched in awe as the Market Basket saga moved inexorably from hopeless standoff to flat-out victory for Demoulas, who purchased the company from his rival relatives for $1.5 billion, and the workers who have long adored him as “Artie T.”
“What I saw from Market Basket is that workers still have the power when they unite, when they come together and when they demand,” Gebre said. “They actually can get results for themselves.”
Yet at the same time, with all those workers’ hopes beginning and ending with a one-of-a-kind CEO, Gebre saw vulnerability.
“If you have a union contract, it doesn’t matter who the CEO is. Your contract is what actually protects you,” he said. “Those workers were forced to actually fight for one single person.”
It worked for them. Throughout their battle of wills with a company board of directors intent on peeling off more profits for shareholders, Market Basket managers and laborers alike insisted they don’t have a union because with Artie T, they’ve simply never needed one.
That’s a far cry from the FairPoint workers, who Thursday complained to the National Labor Relations Board that their employer is not bargaining in good faith as it pulls their biggest asset – their work – right out from under them.
Gebre, who will march with the FairPoint workers Monday, said he hopes the two sides get back to the table before the company imposes a lockout or the workers go on strike.
“Strikes are not good for anybody at all, especially for workers. It’s not an easy decision to make. And I hope we avert that and cooler heads prevail,” he said.
That said, Gebre sees a renaissance of sorts taking place wherever he goes: Discontent, fueled largely by widening income inequality and working conditions that put profits over the people who produce them, is rampant among the cab drivers, the fast food workers, the car washers and the countless others whose jobs traditionally have existed far outside the umbrella of “organized labor.”
“I want to speak for all workers,” Gebre said. “(Union) card or no card, we need to be the agents for anybody who gets up in the morning and goes to work.”
Saturday morning, my wife and stepdaughter drove down to Biddeford for their weekly resupply – their first in over a month – at Market Basket. There, in addition to a steady stream of smiling shoppers, they found clerks happily stocking shelves and thanking every customer they saw for staying so steadfastly loyal to the workers’ cause.
So to Market Basket employees and customers alike, to the still-struggling workers at FairPoint and to anyone else soaking up this long weekend before Tuesday comes and it’s back to the grindstone, happy Labor Day 2014.
This one feels different.