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Lee Benson
Jim Judd, president of the Utah chapter of the AFL-CIO, says Labor Day is a time to pause and thank the labor movement for its tremendous contributions to America's quality of life.

WEST VALLEY CITY — It's Labor Day, and as you head to the lake, or the trailhead, or the ballpark, or you lie in your hammock and contemplate the cosmos, Jim Judd suggests you might pause to raise a toast to the people who made it all possible.

Jim is president of the Utah chapter of the AFL-CIO, and he knows that if it wasn't for the collective efforts of America's working men and women down through the years, we'd all be so busy working we wouldn't have time to contemplate anything, let alone enjoy the day off.

Give him, oh, half a second, and he'll give you a list: Child labor laws. The 40-hour work week and mandatory overtime. Breaktime. Summer vacation.

"I give talks in schools and ask the kids how many of them went on vacation this summer," says Jim. "When they raise their hands I tell them it's because the labor movement fought for that. And then I point out that they might not be in school at all if it wasn't for the child labor laws."

He dusts off the old union cliche that will never go out of style:

"We're the folks who brought you the weekend."

Labor Day celebrates all that, or at least it used to. The holiday originated in the late 1800s as a tribute to labor unions and laborers. There were parades down Main Street and speeches and tributes to the working man (and woman).

Over time, it has devolved into more of just a party.

"In many people's minds, it's the last hurrah of summer, that's all it is," says Jim.

Utah has very few civic-sponsored Labor Day celebrations anymore. The biggest Labor Day-oriented party in the entire state is held every year at the city park in Magna and it's put on by the Central Labor Council. It's like throwing your own birthday party.

But that's OK with Jim. Let people enjoy Labor Day when, where and how they please.

What worries him is what he sees as a continuing erosion of labor's voice as the country settles into what's being called the great recession.

"Business models want to drive out so much of what we've fought for," says Jim. "Benefits, retirement, decent wages. If we're not diligent, we're going to lose what we've already gained."

He speaks of what he calls "the Walmart model" of businesses hiring part-time employees who work for less pay and no benefits.

"We're seeing a slide," he says, "rights are being eroded, there's an attitude that workers are expendable rather than a company's greatest resource."

Pension plans, he points out as an example, used to be the norm, and now they're falling by the wayside.

And he notes the rich irony that the government stepped in to save the very Wall Street companies that precipitated the current economic mess in the first place.

"We bailed out a lot of institutions too big to fail but there was no one to bail out the working-class citizens who found themselves victims of the actions of those institutions."

Jim's term as Utah's AFL-CIO president began in late 2007, just as the first silent volleys of the great recession were being fired. His was an unexpected ascension to the presidency. He was elected vice president earlier that year. Then, just a few short months later, Ed Mayne, who had headed the AFL-CIO in Utah for 30 years, died of a fast-moving cancer.

"I try to wear it (the mantle of the presidency) humbly and live up to the expectations of my good friend Ed Mayne," says Jim, who is 59.

Jim's leadership in the labor movement dates back to when he was a firefighter in Ogden in 1977 and he headed the local chapter of the International Association of Firefighters.

He's been fighting labor fires ever since.

"I have found there is tremendous value in a collective voice," he says. "Every day I try to remember that and make sure we defend the rights of working people in the state of Utah."

Today, that means celebrating the right to take the day off.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com