Labor taking on a different look

The strike in a number of cities by workers in fast-food stores on Thursday is being touted by some in federal government as indicative of a need to increase the minimum wage.

On Labor Day weekend, it’s a focal point for the discussion of the plight of workers, but to focus on wages solely is to forget that the real labor movement of the 20th century was about much more. It was about humane working conditions, working hours and worker safety.

It also centered on major, nation-building industries, such as steel, the railroads and the auto industry. What has happened in the fast-food and other industries is that formerly temporary, stepping-stone jobs have moved into the realm of permanent work, no longer the purview of high school kids or moms while the kids are in school or second jobs.

That is indicative of something far more deeply changed in the economy than the need to pay workers more.

For our area on Labor Day 2013, the world has changed visibly.

Parts of the former Weirton Steel Corp. are long gone and the blast furnaces at the Steubenville North plant of the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. mill have been demolished. The USW hall in Steubenville is closed. The training center in Steubenville is for sale.

The economy locally still has unionized factories and mills in a much smaller scale, but the shift has moved toward the energy field, with processing plants, drilling sites, administrative workers and trucking filling the employment picture. The hope is that as the industry matures and as local workers are trained, the jobs will take root and new generations of labor will be rebuilding the vibrance of the local economy.