By Anne Marie Gurney

In retrospect, it’s probably just as well Congress christened it “Labor Day” rather than “Union Day” when the federal holiday was created in 1892.

In the generations since, it’s become abundantly clear it’s the nation’s workers as a whole and the work they do that deserve commemoration, not the movement that grew up around — and eventually overwhelmed — them.

To be sure, labor unions once served a noble purpose. At the dawn of the Industrial Age, for example, there’s little question workplace conditions and the abysmal wages being paid in the nation’s mines and factories needed a massive upgrade, and while the free market would eventually have accomplished the same miracles, organized labor certainly expedited the process.

A hundred twenty-five years later, however, labor unions are still living on past glories they’ve elevated into a license to mooch that never expires.

What’s important to understand is that organized labor comes in two very different flavors.

In the private sector, where once a third of all workers belonged to trade unions, that number has cratered to barely 6 percent.

Why? Because unions subject to real-world economic forces no longer serve any purpose for labor or management.

In a global economy, corporate wages and benefits are largely set by the market, not plucked arbitrarily out of thin air. Auto- and steelworkers, for example, were once free to demand the moon knowing their employers were only competing against four or five domestic companies all dealing with their own labor problems.

Today, though, the competition comes from Japan, South Korea, China and every country in the free world, and there’s only so far a union can go without killing its golden-egg-laying goose.

Workers who see little difference between union and non-union wages and benefits — with the exception of paychecks lightened by monthly dues — inevitably vote with their feet and opt out.

Unfortunately, things work a little differently in the public sector.

For the time being, membership in government employee unions is holding steady or even growing for three basic reasons.

First, because government itself continues to grow exponentially. Second, because in 22 states — including Oregon — union membership is still virtually mandatory. And third, because politicians and their allies in the labor movement refuse to believe government is subject to the same laws of economics that govern the rest of the universe.

Governments don’t have to earn profits, after all, to pay public employees handsome salaries and lavish benefits. Just raise taxes.

Where competition in the free market forces corporations to perform efficiently or die, governments — and the unions that dominate them — respect no such limitations.

Modern public-sector unions, in fact, have morphed into little more than cash cows for liberal candidates and causes. They funnel billions of their members’ dues dollars into the hands greedy politicians, who return the favor — using our money, of course — when it comes time to negotiate a new union contract.

And the cycle just keeps repeating itself, with government growing bigger and the union influence more pervasive.

This may or may not have been what Congress voted to honor when it first authorized Labor Day, but modern taxpayers could surely find a principle more worthy of celebration than perpetuating the billion-dollar money-laundering scheme being coordinated by government employee unions with our tax dollars.

For starters, how about the right-to-work protections found in 28 states that give public employees a choice about whether or not to join or pay a service fee to a union that no longer serves their needs or represents their values.

Freeing workers to decide for themselves — and forcing the unions to compete for members rather than extracting dues by force — would put a refreshing, free-market spin on the holiday.

Now that’s an ideal worth celebrating.

— Anne Marie Gurney is Oregon director of the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, member-supported policy organization that promotes free enterprise and limited, accountable government.

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