It's happened again. I got into a conversation with a conservative friend and found myself defending labor unions. To his credit, my friend conceded that unions were necessary in the last century to defend workers from oppressive corporations. But today, he says, they only seek to coddle the lazy and prevent social and economic progress.
Gently, I tried to remind him that unions were a partner during America's most robust growth years. Today, they're a shadow of what they were while growth has all but stopped. Of course, the unions my friend has in mind are of public servants, and specifically the teachers' unions. In fairness, conservatives don't wish to see robust growth in this sector.
My friend has seen On the Waterfront and a host of other accounts, factual and fictional, of labor racketeering. I suggested that those days are gone and that the big time corruption nowadays is to be found on Wall Street and among its D.C. enablers.
This weekend is called Labor Day, but who remembers why? Certainly not the governor of Texas who has questioned the constitutionality of child labor restrictions. Nor the average worker, 88% of whom are not unionized. Most school children could not recall organized labor's contributions to American history which are all but omitted from today's textbooks.
Perhaps unions can only thrive in a growing economy. When job creation is at zero, as in the U.S. today, there can be no leverage for collective bargaining. So Labor Day is now a relic from a bygone era, a souvenir of America's faded industrial glory.
Lee J. Cobb, Marlon Brando, and Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront, 1954. Arthur Miller wrote the original screenplay and gave it to Elia Kazan, who had directed Death of a Salesman on Broadway. But Columbia's Harry Cohen thought Miller was a communist and replaced him with Budd Schulberg. Kazan, Schulberg, and Cobb (the original Willy Loman) were all friendly witnesses before the House Unamerican Activities Committee and the film is widely seen as a defense of their naming names. Cobb's testimony all but ruined the acting career of my beloved friend and teacher, Jeff Corey, who nevertheless attended Cobb's funeral and made peace with his daughter. Click on the picture for a closer look.