Labor Day lesson: courage, organization and vision

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by Bill Barry

The importance of Labor Day, like the importance of all holidays, is lost in the blur of back-to-school sales, beer, backyard bar-b-ques and more beer. Open your paper (if you still read one) and you’ll see the most brazen cut of all: Wal-Mart proclaiming its Labor Day sales, hoping to profit from the holiday gained by the very union movement which Wal-Mart so detests.

If Labor Day—the holiday which honors the labor movement—is a day for taking stock of where we are as workers, 2009 could be a gloomy moment indeed. Workers in general and unionism in particular, have suffered a series of poundings that threaten to take us back in time 100 years.

The numbers are cruel. Unionism is at its lowest percentage of the workforce since 1930. Wages have been basically frozen since 1973 and the gap between the rich and the rest of us is the greatest of any major developed country, except Mexico and Turkey. The one major party in the US, the Republicrats, offers neither recognition nor help, as the debate over health care so clearly demonstrates.

Even though I’m gloomy and angry, I’m hopeful because workers history is a kind of tonic. If workers are so fearful today, there is no better time to remember that Labor Day is a memorial to the courage and spirit of the workers who marched in the first Labor Day parade in New York City in 1882. The holiday is a tribute to their vision of unionism as a powerful social movement.

Like the health care movement of today, the first Labor Day drew its inspiration from our Canadian brothers and sisters: Peter J. Maguire, an officer of the carpenters union, participated in a Canadian labor day activity which grew out of the 9-hour movement, and planned one for New York City in September, 1882.

The first parade in New York City was an inspiring example of workers’ disobedience since they had to take off from work to march with their families. That parade represented a band of outlaws, with no legal protection or representation, making their case for improved conditions for themselves and, most importantly, for all workers. These brave individuals were often members of secret organizations because open union membership usually led to immediate discharge, blacklisting, eviction and even execution. For early union members, hardship and struggle were simply the prices to be paid for trying to make their lives better.

Their beliefs in 1882 ranged from basic unionism to—ah, that dreaded word—socialism, but their immediate issues were plain: higher wages and a shorter workday. The original Labor Day parade supported the demand for the eight-hour day and ultimately helped establish eight hours as a “normal” workday. The intent was to leave workers with free time for their families, for recreation, for self-improvement and—yes, for backyard bar-b-ques and beer. It is a sign of the decline of union strength, however, that the eight-hour day is still considered “normal” after 127 years when workers in other countries moved to shorter work days and shorter work weeks. American workers are now the most overworked of any industrialized country.

This sturdy band of workers had a vision and they were determined to take control, unlike many workers today who see themselves as victims. They felt they held the power in their own hands, if only they could organize to use it. The workers of 1882 faced many of the same divisive factors we see today: they felt white workers were superior to workers of color, they feared immigrant workers, and they only grudgingly admitted women into their movement. Still, they had a spirit which is so lacking today. A friend of mine lamented the tougher conditions, both at work, and in his community, and concluded: “I guess we’ll just have to play the hand we’ve been dealt.”

Not the workers of 1882! They were determined to deal themselves a new hand, one that held the cards of increased income, greater security and independent political power through working-class organization. Fundamentally, unionism has always been about power. While employers determined how the wealth of the United States was created, unionism demanded to negotiate how the wealth would be divided. While employers decided who was hired, unionism demanded that the terms of employment be fair, safe and healthy.

It is important to appreciate that a strong union movement, like a rising tide, lifted all workers. Over the past century, many employers raised wages simply to match union scales or established fringe benefits plans with the specific intention of “avoiding” unionism. Family health insurance, pensions, paid holidays and vacations–all became a kind of employment standard set by union workers and passed along to nonunion workers.

Unfortunately, the tide has been sinking, not rising, over the past 40 years and so, for non-union workers, the free ride is over. Non-union workers have waited patiently and passively for their employers to improve their wages and working conditions but today face desperation and need, more than ever, to pay attention to the lessons of Labor Day.

It’s not that workers today don’t want unions but they are so fearful of the risks and penalties that the employers threaten to bring down upon them if they try to organize. I was having a discussion last week with a women who works at my local bank (yes, I am a worker fortunate enough to still have a bank account) and she was describing her fears as her bank merges with another: loss of salary, move to a distant branch or—the capital punishment—loss of her job and the important benefits, like health insurance, that are part of it. I urged her to think about unionizing and she said her husband had said the same thing. But she was frightened—almost mortally—and the mangers of the financial empire had made it very clear to their peasants that any worker caught thinking uppity would be gone—and quickly. Illegal? Sure it is, but what’s a little law to a big bank?

So the lesson of Labor Day is courage and organization and vision for workers—that’s what made the union movement what it is and what made this country great. So as you celebrate Labor Day, remember the movement that created it and live by the words of Woody Guthrie who said, “Take it easy, but take it.”

Bill Barry is director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County and a 40-year veteran of the movement.  This post was prepared for a broadcast on a Baltimore radio station on Labor Day 2009.   He is the author of I Just Got Elected–Now What? A New Union Officer’s Handbook and Union Strategies for Hard Times. His website can be found here.

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