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Sunday, Mar 29, 2015

Taft: Faith and labor unions a needed link?

Guest columnist


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Labor Day, once accorded Super Bowl-like media coverage and marked with parades and political speeches considered key to forthcoming elections, today is hardly more than a paid holiday providing a three-day weekend for play and relaxation. Why? Few people know or care.

Such a change seems symbolic of the shift in the economic situation in our nation, the fading political power of labor unions, the mushrooming racial and ethnic diversity of the population, and — often overlooked for its impact — a growing “mushiness” in religious faith.

The facts are, percentage wise, fewer people work today. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the percentage of the population now in the workforce has dropped from just over 62 percent in 2004 and a high of 65 percent in 1999 to about 58 percent this year. That means that more than 15 million of the men and women in the working age brackets are without jobs.

For that and other reasons, fewer workers are joining unions. Membership as a percentage of the workforce peaked in 1954 at 35 percent and by the total number of members at 21 million in 1979. Today’s union membership stands at 14.3 million or a little more than 11 percent of the 237.6 million employed workers.

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In Florida, only 5.4 percent of the 7.6 million men and women with jobs belong to unions and that’s down 26,000 from the year before. Some activists blame recent Supreme Court rulings that you don’t have to belong to or pay a fee to a union to benefit from the wage, health or other benefits won through union negotiations, and the fact that union membership is not required for any job in this or any other right-to-work state.

Among other explanations: technology is eliminating jobs; corporations are transferring jobs overseas for business tax reasons; as many as 8 million illegal workers hold jobs (587,000 of them in Florida); government assistance is discouraging potential workers from seeking employment; and additional factors.

Education has a big effect on having a job. Workers in the 18-35 age bracket make up 52 per cent of today’s unemployment rolls. Of those young people, 60 percent have only a high school education or less. Some 86 percent of Hispanic young people fall into this category and 80 percent of blacks.

If members of that undereducated group do get a job, it most likely will be stocking goods on a shelf in a grocery store or flipping hamburgers in a fast-food place where wages are low and so is union representation.

While the decline in membership, especially in that age group, significantly has reduced union political power, organized labor remains an influential voice in both local and national issues. But on more and more of those issues, such as immigration reform, that voice is cracking under the growing racial, ethnic, generational and religious divide among union membership as well as within the population as a whole.

The Pew Research Center reports that during the past 20 years, the number of Muslim immigrants to the United States has doubled, the number of Hindus doubled, the number of Christians has declined from 68 percent to 61 percent and those religiously unaffiliated has remained steady at about 14 percent.

Among resident citizens, Asian-Americans — many of them Hindus or Muslims — are the fastest growing segment of the population, their number having reached 18.9 million. But by sheer numbers, Hispanics have grown to be the largest ethnic group with slightly more than 53 million members making up 17 percent of the U.S. population.

To that number you can add as much as 83 percent of perhaps 11 million illegal (the Pew Center refers to them as “unauthorized”) immigrants — mostly Catholic and Hispanic.

Few followers of Islam and Hinduism find the principles of unionism in their religious traditions. Christians — Catholics in particular — on the other hand, have a long tradition, especially in Europe, of trade guilds and unions.

Not surprisingly, the first Labor Day observance was organized and promoted by this country’s first national labor union, the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, headed by a devout Catholic, Terence Vincent Powderly.

Influenced by his personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord of all life, Powderly sought to make the union a moral as well as economic force in the United States. Under his leadership, the Knights grew from 10,000 members in 1879 to 750,000 in 1888. Membership included skilled and unskilled laborers — Powderly himself was a machinist — black, white, male and female, immigrant and native-born workers across a variety of trade or occupational lines.

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Six times Powderly was elected head of the Knights whose Declaration of Principles included scripture references and whose rules forebade Sunday meetings as well as cursing and smoking during such meetings. Membership was denied to anyone involved in the liquor business.

So when in 1892 the New York branch of his Knights organized and held the first Labor Day observance, there was a parade headed by political and religious leaders.

Maybe there is a connection between the decline of membership in today’s unions and studies by the Pew Research Center showing a growing “softness” in the faith of Catholics and a surging portion of the nation’s population that follows a non-Christian faith.

Only 27 percent of Americans who claim membership in the Catholic church consider themselves strong in their faith. That’s down 15 points from 25 years ago, according to the Pew studies. And even those who consider themselves strong in their faith have cut their frequency at Sunday Mass by half during the past 40 years.

What do you think?

Adon Taft for 37 years was religion editor of The Miami Herald. He taught social studies at Miami-Dade Community College. He is retired in Brooksville and can be contacted at

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