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Profession Deserves Credit for Improving Workplace

This is our Labor Day edition, so it is only fair to acknowledge that without early union leaders this would not be a holiday week. Labor Day became a national holiday because President Grover Cleveland was trying to regain the support of organized labor in his bid for a third term.

Labor was angry with the president because Cleveland was a pro-business Democrat and he had forced the end of a contentious strike. Cleveland made Labor Day a national holiday in 1894 in hopes of gaining labor’s favor, but the act didn’t solidify labor support and he lost his 1896 bid for a third term.

It’s also fair to recognize today that times have changed. Most laborers are not members of a union. Only about 7 percent of the nongovernmental workforce is a member of a union. About 39 percent of government employees are members of a union.

Perhaps that explains why this holiday has transitioned into an “end of summer” holiday more than a salute to organized labor. It might be more appropriate for this holiday to recognize merely that most United States citizens — nonunion and union — work pretty hard and deserve a holiday.

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Given the numbers, I was surprised at the partisanship in a recent quarterly edition of an American Bar Association section magazine. The publication was, essentially, a reprint of the speeches given in celebration of the National Labor Relations Act’s 75th anniversary.

From its reading, you could conclude that the only reason the country’s workforce is not entirely unionized is because of mean and greedy business leaders. And, further, that if the country was more heavily unionized, everyone would have a job. The misunderstanding of why people have walked away from unions was staggering, particularly given the audience and ownership of the publication.

There are three primary reasons for the dramatic and consistent decline in the number of nongovernmental union members in the private sector: First and foremost, plaintiff lawyers are a more effective and efficient way for an employee or class of employees to address employer wage and hour abuse, and, in many cases, other abuses; second, factory work where everyone does the same thing and can be treated the same — i.e., every worker can be justly treated just like the worst performing employee — is no longer done in the United States; and, finally, employees do not see value in unions.

Unless it is required by contract, most employees in unions I am familiar with would not pay their dues. That’s why a check-off provision, which requires a business to deduct dues from every employee and pay them directly to the union, is always a contentious negotiation issue.

This isn’t intended to be a column attacking unions. The point is that the much-maligned legal profession has done a better job of protecting employees than unions, and that’s a big reason this week’s holiday is more about when to stop wearing white shoes than a celebration of union membership. The legal profession can and should be proud of its contribution to working America.

Speaking of celebrations, The San Diego County Bar Foundation’s annual charity benefit, “An Evening in La Jolla,” is scheduled for Sept. 17. Candace Carroll and Len Simon have generously agreed to open their home for the event. Money raised will go toward assisting victims of poverty, abuse and discrimination by awarding grants to legal aid and public interest organizations that promote public understanding of the legal system.

Gary Laturno, who does mediations and arbitration when he isn’t doing real estate work with his wife, Vikki Kuick, donates a ton of time to help folks understand complex short sales and foreclosures. He deserves some special recognition.

And more celebrations. Marie Burke Kenny, a partner at Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps LLP, was recently honored at the YWCA of San Diego County’s 32nd annual Tribute to Women & Industry, or TWIN, Awards Luncheon. As a practice group leader, Kenny is responsible for, among other things, strategic marketing for her group throughout California, in addition to maintaining her own thriving practice in employment law.

Again, our profession helping employers and employees, making the workplace better for all.

Randy C. Frisch is the president and publisher of the San Diego Business Journal. He is licensed to practice law in California, Nevada and Idaho. He can be reached at rfrisch@sdbj.com.

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