(WHTM) — For many, Labor Day is just another day off for one last summer cookout. However, the holiday is a serious one for the people still fighting for workers’ rights.
Advocates say it is a time to celebrate what the labor movement has achieved but it also highlights a struggle over who’s really fighting for workers.
Steelton’s steel mill has been a fixture of the community for years.
“I’m fourth generation at the plant, so my great grandfather, grandfather, my father,” USW international staff representative Maurice Cobb said. “What it means to the community is more than you can put into words.
The local chapter of the United Steelworkers Union is a big part of that.
“Voting happens here for local elections, our ball field is open to a lot of community activities,” Cobb said.
While the union is not what it once was, “when it was Bethlehem Steel and we had 6,000 employees,” Cobb said it is still an important part of the community.
Cobb has spent nearly two decades in the union. This Labor Day, he explained the holiday means a lot.
“The true meaning and the reason why Labor Day was enacted has been lost,” he said. “It’s just a time to sit back and reflect on the sacrifice that a lot of the workers before us have gone through.”
Cobb said unions are a big reason the rest of us have the 40 hour work week and benefits like vacation and sick time.
Not everyone feels quite the same way about unions being celebrated. Just 10% of American workers hold union membership according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mark Mix, president of the National Right To Work Committee says Labor Day should be about “those workers that have had the choice and the ability to join unions, but for some reason, have chosen not to do that.”
Mix argues people should be able to join a union only if they want to do so.
“You shouldn’t be compelled as a condition of employment to join or pay dues to a labor union,” he said.
Legally, no one can be forced to join a union but according to the National Labor Relations Board employers and unions can have “union-security agreements,” which require employees in a certain unit to become members.
Under Right to Work Laws, those agreements are not allowed, and each employee decides whether or not to join the union. To Cobb, that’s not fair. Unions still have to represent those non-members.
“You can’t not pay for the country club membership and go to the country club for free.”
Mix countered that even union members aren’t always happy.
“You’re forced to associate with the union and take what they get you,” he said.
Cobb admits that can be true because contract negotiations are by definition a compromise.
“No one’s going to win, get 100% of everything they want. We all come to the table with a wish list,” he said.
Cobb said while union membership is down nationwide — from 20 percent in the 1980s to 10 percent in 2022 — the local Steelworkers chapter has bounced back since a COVID low and continues to grow.