There was a time when Labor Day was about as good as it could get for organized labor and the Democratic Party in Northwest Indiana.

Thousands of organized labor members filled much of the Lake County Fairgrounds to celebrate Labor Day. It was a heck of a party.

And Democratic political candidates made their way through the crowds of union workers hoping to secure votes in the upcoming elections. If you were a candidate and didn’t have union support, you didn’t have much of a chance.

Unions were a brotherhood back then. Elected officials took notice and acted accordingly.

For a variety of reasons, things began to change following the recession of 1980 and a downturn in the steel industry.

The meaning of “union strong” no longer had the clout it once did. The building trades in Northwest Indiana — once more than 25,000 strong — lost membership and was no longer its former self.

And the Steelworkers, who once had a regional membership of 75,000, lost two-thirds of its members as the steel industry found it could make steel more economically.

All the while, some unions lost the solidarity that made them strong and produced results.

Some union members fell away from the Democratic Party and started voting for the God, guns and gay issues promoted or opposed by Republicans.

Organized labor then started to pay the ultimate price in the loss of clout.

The Republican-controlled Legislature decimated teacher unions by stripping them of power.

And they did much the same to building trades when it eliminated the prevailing wage law.

The next attack upon unions was the adoption of the right-to-work law that essentially is the right-to-work-for-less law.

And all the while, some union members continued to help elect more Republicans.

It’s difficult to determine if organized labor in Northwest Indiana can make a comeback.

But it is clear they have a pretty good leader in U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., who has been fighting for unions on the federal stage for almost 34 years.

But he can’t do it alone.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjamescolumns@gmail.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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