I like to to run this piece on Labor Day. First published 9/10/2010
ThinkWing Radio with Mike Honig, 10/1/2010, 100110-FULL SHOW Audio GUEST: Becky Moeller, president of the Texas AFL-CIO Topic/Commentary: Why We Celebrate Labor Day.
It’s been just a few weeks since Labor Day, and we all celebrated it after our own fashion.
Some of us visited friends and shared their barbeques, or had our own. Some of us went to the beach for maybe the last time this year. Our kids enjoyed their last long weekend, a last faint shadow of their summer vacations, before the months of school until their next holiday.
So we all celebrated in our fashion. But what is it we were celebrating?
Like most national or state holidays, the reason for the holiday gets lost and forgotten. It becomes just the “day off” or “long weekend” which we’re REALLY celebrating.
So Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday become “President’s Day”. A day to remember what, exactly? Store sales?
Memorial Day, Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Veteran’s Day … By an act of Congress, these days, once deemed special enough to close the federal government and our entire financial system, are now just a way of creating long weekends and special shopping days.
And so it is with Labor Day, and I’ll plead guilty myself. We all take the weekend, cook the food, splash at the beach, or whatever we do, but we never think about why there is a Labor Day.
American workers today are often anti-union. The irony is that they’re anti-union while working eight-hour days won by unions, five-day weeks won by unions, getting time and a half for overtime and double time on holidays won by unions, vacation and sick days won by unions, and getting health and retirement benefits won by unions.
But trust me … Business owners and corporate executives didn’t award these “normal benefits” to workers out of the goodness of their hearts, and they didn’t give these benefits to workers because some factory worker came hat in hand and asked nicely.
History is rife with violence perpetrated against union members by hired thugs, Pinkerton employees, police and even the U.S. Army.
The first American labor unions are said to have been created as early as the late 1700’s, but the Labor Union Movement started in a big way after the Civil War.
Before labor unions in the United States, workers often put in 12- and 18-hour days, sometimes 7 days a week. Industrial accidents, maiming and deaths were common, though in some industries more than others.
Child labor in factories was beyond anything we can imagine now. Elementary school-age children were working in textile mills, standing on wooden boxes for 10-12 hours per day so that they could reach the controls which operated the machines. Now imagine them breathing in the textile dust and contracting brown lung disease and developing emphysema before they even turn 25.
Imagine pre-teen boys going a mile or more down into coal mines full of explosive coal dust and methane.
Imagine thousands of these boys and men being killed each and every year from mine collapses, or because there wasn’t adequate ventilation to reduce coal dust and methane to safe levels, or because technology was focused on production more than safety or health.
Nor were women safe from life-threatening exploitation. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed 146 garment workers. The company was on the 8th to 10th floors. The workers had been locked in by their managers to prevent theft. Unable to escape the fire, many of those killed leapt 100 feet to their deaths, rather than burn to death in the flames.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, to this day, is still one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of New York City.
To many businesses of the time, these weren’t truly people. They were simply means to an end. If they were killed or injured, sickened or quit, there were plenty more where they came from, because there was no such thing as a living wage and everyone needed brutal hours of work at any job they could find.
The worst part is – and yes there’s a worse part – the worst part is that even the people performing these horrific labors for all these exhausting hours in these dangerous conditions, were sometimes cheated at the end by their employers, and found their pay envelopes short for reasons contrived by the owners.
Workers were sometimes paid in company scrip, good only at the company store. Without cash payments, these workers became nothing more than indentured servants, unable to save any money to find a better life.
In 1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded a song about coal miners and the company store called “Sixteen Tons” (1955).
Here’s a bit of it: [CUE SONG FROM 0:01 to 0:38. Then fade]
Death, injury, dismemberment… These were all routine costs of doing business to the capitalists of the time. Of course the families of the dead, ill and injured felt somewhat more emotional about these traumatic outcomes.
As we know even today, one person can’t go to a manager with a grievance without risking their job. The point of a union, then, is to create a balance of power, just like in world diplomacy.
The fight for unions that could negotiate with owners really was a fight. It involved paid Pinkerton thugs, police, and even troops. People were killed. Companies went to great lengths – life and death lengths — to prevent unions and union organizers from signing up employees.
As I’ve said on this show before, the single purpose of a business is to make money. Balancing that imperative in our society requires other institutions with other purposes.
Unions aren’t perfect, and businesses can’t be held responsible for being what they are meant to be. But as with any negotiation, the fairest outcome is a negotiation between equals.
Unions give individual workers that equality of negotiating power.
The benefits most workers take for granted and enjoy today are the result of at least 150 years of struggles by American workers to organize, create unions, and get companies to agree to collective bargaining.
And these struggles weren’t just paperwork projects fought by blue-collar desk-jockeys. One source calls American labor union history the bloodiest of any industrialized nation on earth.
So today, the average working person’s job benefits are all considered just the normal stuff by most people. It’s always been the way of things in living memory.
Workers created Labor Day on their own in 1882. It became a national holiday in 1894.
On Labor Day and every day, when workers today get the benefits they feel are their normal entitlement, they should remember that they weren’t free. The same as our national freedom, people fought and died for those benefits.
And in the world we live in today, as with our nation’s freedom, constant worker vigilance is required to maintain them.
ADDITIONAL INFO (Added 1/24/2013):