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Lloyd Omdahl, Published September 06 2010

Omdahl: Unions get no respect

Today is the least-respected holiday on the North Dakota social calendar. The first Monday in September was first designated by President Grover Cleveland in 1894 as Labor Day. We’ll gladly take the day off, thank you, but without any recognition of labor.

Today, North Dakota has around 20,000 union members, 6.8 percent of the work force. The majority of states with fewer union members are states in the Deep South.

For several reasons, labor unions never did get much respect in North Dakota. In the first place, the state didn’t have an economy that lent itself to labor organization, lacking a significant manufacturing segment with concentrations of blue-collar workers. Railroad employees were unionized, but only because they had already bargained for recognition after bitter disputes in the East.

Culture was another major reason unions did not win respect in the state. One of the key characteristics of our culture is individualism – individualism carried to the extreme. Rugged individualism was born on the barren prairie where miles separated settlers from each other. If they didn’t do it themselves isolated out in nowhere North Dakota, the crop never got planted, the binder fixed, or the fences built. Everything stood still until they did something with their own hands.

Our parents and grandparents learned the lesson well, and rugged individualism remains a mainstay in our culture today. Somehow, North Dakotans couldn’t reconcile their anarchic individualism with union regimentation. So unions had an attitudinal problem to overcome. They still do, because second- and third-generation farm kids brought their anti-union attitudes with them to the city.

A third reason. Labor could not find a coalition with which to make common cause. Even though some farm and labor leaders tried to find common ground, in their heart of hearts farmers figured that if labor got higher wages, the tractors and combines would become more expensive. The higher wages may not come out of corporate profits, as labor claimed, but more likely from higher prices on the things farmers bought.

Looking back at American industrial history over the past 150 years, we should be able to see that forcing management to the bargaining table to share the prosperity of a growing economy resulted in a surge of purchasing power that circulated money throughout the economy. The money came back, and industry gained in spite of itself. Henry Ford recognized the purchasing power of higher wages by paying his employees the outlandish wage of $5 a day – twice the norm. But he sold them more Fords.

Even though many North Dakotans have never warmed up to unions, the fact remains that we have all been beneficiaries of the labor movement because a rising tide raises all ships. When labor unions bargained for better wages, nonunion members got raises as well. When labor unions won eight-hour days, everyone soon had an eight-hour day. When labor got vacation time, so did everyone else. The benefits gained by labor became benefits for the unorganized workers, including those who hated unions. That’s deserving of a little respect.

So, grudgingly throw another burger on the grill. Try to enjoy a holiday that wouldn’t exist without unions.

We can recount their warts some other day.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail ndmatters@q.com