On Labor Day, activists worried about balance of power
But for some the federal holiday represents more — much more in a political climate where being a union member is coming under attack.
Historically, Leelanau County has not been a center for organized labor. However, a number of residents in the building trades have been and continue to participate in union activities.
“In the old days each town had its own union shop,” said Lake Leelanau resident Bruce Price, a longtime member of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen Local No. 9 out of Lansing. “We had a lot of union shops in Traverse City… but it all fell apart.”
In the 1970s, Traverse City’s bigger masonry contractors — Comstock, Koning and Arnold & Tezak — were all union shops. Price worked as an apprentice for three years before becoming a journeyman.
And the political clout of the groups was significant. Workers in some cases hit the picket line and struck.
Anti-union sentiments appeared to take hold in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan broke the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a national organization.
That’s considered by many to be one of the most important events in U.S. labor history. Price, however, said another important turn occurred when the labor market became more competitive, and the number of businesses affiliated with trade unions decreased.
“As things slowed down, more and more contractors went non-union,” Price said.
Eventually, union tradesmen had to be willing to travel to get work. Price recalls driving daily to work sites in Pellston, Boyne City and Alpena.
Now many tradesmen are working for non-union wages.
“It’s a race to the bottom,” Price said.
Both he and Cindy Hollenbeck of Maple City are concerned about a general anti-union tone in the Republican controlled state Legislature. Union acitivists have secured a spot on the November ballot to provide unions constitutionally guaranteed power to collective bargain.
“There’s a mighty force aligned against unions right now,” said Hollenbeck, one-time president of the Glen Lake Federation of Teachers who plans to retire after the upcoming school year. “Regular people aren’t interested in politics until it starts to hit home.”
Hollenbeck took a personal day in the winter of 2011 to march in Lansing in protest of the union-busting legislation which was approved by the Republican dominated state House and Senate.
The grandmother of four said she was disappointed but not surprised that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall effort which focused on passage of labor-nullifying legislation.
“It wasn’t a vote of love for his people. He toned it way down and became more quiet and sneaky like (Gov.) Rick Snyder,” she said.
As she begins her 25th year in the classroom, Hollenbeck said she’s trying not to “freak out” about the decline of unions.
“People will rise up again. I hope we don’t have to work to get back everything we’ve gotten,” she said.