Juneau celebrates Labor Day

“Genius begins great works; labor alone finishes them.” Those words come from the 18th Century French Moralist, Joseph Joubert.

You could say it this way:

“While they have the ideas, those ideas don’t translate into action unless there’s skilled labor to help them do it.”

That’s Alaska Public Employees Association business agent Pete Ford, one of several members of Juneau’s Central Labor Council that puts on the annual community picnic each Labor Day.

Labor organization signs hang from the Sandy Beach shelter during the annual Labor day picnic.

Monday’s was the sixth since the Council got the idea and it’s grown every year. Ford says they planned on food for four hundred people, but that wasn’t enough to feed all those who came.

Union signs hang outside the Sandy Beach shelter; inside, political candidates line up to thank Juneau workers and remind them to vote in the upcoming fall elections.

This Labor Day picnic is not just the last hurrah of summer, which the federal holiday seems to have become in many places. Labor Day was born out of the union movement and the effort to improve workers’ conditions in the 19th century.

Union signs flank the grill area where hotdogs, hamburgers, chicken and salmon were on the menu.

To the guys flipping burgers at Juneau’s picnic in 2012, that should not be forgotten.

“Labor Day is a celebration of the people who built this fine county,” says Local 71 business agent Tom Brice, and Central Labor Council member. “Not Democrat or Republican, but the working people of America and the working people, in this case, of Alaska and Juneau.”

Around the country, the labor movement has lost strength over the last four decades. Union membership and union influence have decreased. Twenty-three states are now considered “right to work,” with laws that prohibit union security agreements.

Alaska has strong labor laws and Brice says it’s important the young state remains pro-union, especially because of the “seasonality of the work that we have. The cost associated with health care, the cost of living. Those very factors that Alaska’s working people face require that we have good health care, benefits and pensions,”. Brice says.

Right to work legislation was filed in the Alaska Legislature last year and though it made little progress, Ford is concerned that labor union strength in Alaska may be waning.

“The state has shifted to a more conservative mentality as construction has died down. Construction is what usually drives labor unions and involvement in labor unions. And after the plant, if you will, is built and things are humming along, people seem to forget how they got there,” Ford says. “We need to recreate a situation where there is better balance and equality when we go to the bargaining table and that the rights of both the workers as well as the owner are being observed.”

In Alaska, the AFL-CIO – an umbrella federation — represents about 60,000 members in some 50 affiliated unions statewide, including state workers. More than 15,000 employees of the state of Alaska are represented by unions.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 14.8 million workers in the country were represented by labor unions last year, about 11.8 percent of the workforce.