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Labor Day still relevant, union leaders say

September 05, 2005|by KAREN HANNA

karenh@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Despite the erosion of manufacturing jobs and divisions within the labor movement, local union leaders say the long weekend's holiday is more than barbecues, road trips and ballgames.

For Charles Shindle, secretary-treasurer of the Central Maryland AFL-CIO Council, who has watched the ranks of union membership shrink and splinter in his 38 years of affiliation, Labor Day remains relevant.

"Without the unions, a lot of the non-union people wouldn't be making the benefits and have the safe working environments that they enjoy now," Shindle said.

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According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Central Labor Union organized the first Labor Day celebration Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. Congress first recognized the holiday in 1894.

Since he joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Shindle has seen union membership decline as companies closed and manufacturing jobs moved elsewhere. In its heyday in the middle half of the 20th century, the Central Maryland council's ranks included at least 20,000 workers, said Bobby Fouche, the organization's education director.

The union now represents 12,000 and 15,000 people in Frederick and Washington counties, Shindle said.

"If we don't have the jobs, the movement is not needed in this county," Shindle said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15.8 million workers around the country belong to a union.

The Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers International and Service Employees International unions all announced this summer they were ending their affiliations with the AFL-CIO.

Larry Lorshbaugh, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 9386, which represents employees of Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream Inc. in Hagerstown, acknowledged unionism has taken its share of hits over the past few years. Only about 19 percent of Americans are union members, he said.

"There's a lot of people who are losing their jobs, and they're not really finding anything that's competitive or comparative," Lorshbaugh said.

People have lost sight of the workplace improvements unions championed, said Dave Perkins, president of United Auto Workers Local 171.

"We have to start reintroducing people to the past so they can understand why we live the life we live now, and we don't want to go back to the way it was," said Perkins, who works at the Volvo Powertrain North America plant in Hagerstown.

Shindle said Labor Day is significant for all workers, not just union members. As gas prices continue to soar, Shindle said people eventually will reach a point when they've had enough.

"Whenever people say that the real need is there, and, 'Hey, we made a mistake in not having a union at our facility,' it'll come back," Shindle said.

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