Labor Day is one of the few holidays with which I feel I have a tangible connection.
Columbus Day? Not Italian. St. Patrick's Day? Not Irish. Easter? Not religious. Memorial Day? No family members, save for a first cousin once removed, have been killed in action. Mother's Day? No kids. Christmas and Thanksgiving are nice, but they usually mean traveling during the worst weather of the year and dealing with assorted relatives.
But Labor Day is something that means a little more to me than just a Monday off and a cook-out.
Although it had been celebrated earlier in certain parts of the country, Labor Day became an official U.S. holiday in the aftermath of the Pullman Strike of 1894, in which at least 13 workers were killed, and over 50 wounded.
The history of U.S. labor movement has been chronicled in countless books and movies, so that's not something I'll repeat here. But I will say that whenever I see Norma Rae (a character based on the real union activist Crystal Lee Sutton) holding up that sign, in silent defiance, challenging her co-workers to turn off their machines and stand up for their rights, I get a genuine thrill.
When I look at this picture, or when I read about the early struggles of the garment workers in New York City (especially the Triangle Shirtwaist fire), and then when I sign off on a contract that I helped to negotiate, I realize that I am standing on the shoulders of giants.
You see, I am a paid staffer for a public-sector union (Tennessee Education Association), and I am also a union member (Tennessee Staff Organization). My workplace organized quite peacefully and uneventfully in 1999. I'm sure that this is only because of the violence and bloodshed that came before. I had the right to cast my vote to unionize in safety, and I have the right to sit down at the bargaining table with management without fear of retaliation, because people died to secure those rights. I often wonder if I would have had the courage of those early activists and leaders, but it's because of their sacrifices that I most likely won't ever have to find out.
So, I watch a film like Matewan or Harlan County U.S.A., or Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, and I marvel at these people, these heroes, mostly poor and uneducated, who made things so much easier for me. And they made things easier for you too, whether you're in a union or not, and whether you support unions or not.
Because we need to get one thing straight right now: employers rarely ever do anything out of the goodness of their hearts. That's not to say that employers are inherently evil (although there are some who would certainly fit the bill). It's just that the interests of the employer are almost always diametrically opposed to the interests of the worker. And that, in itself, isn't evil either. It's just the way it is. But there seems to be a persistent mindset that somehow regards the interests of the employer as sacred and good, while characterizing the interests of the worker as greedy and unreasonable. Why can't we just view those interests as competing, and admit that unionization is a way for both parties to sit down and talk about those interests?
The fact is that a compromise between those competing interests can be reached. That compromise is hammered out at the bargaining table, line by line, where both groups meet as equals and talk about their issues. And the gains that the labor movement makes are then often extended to non-union industries and workplaces as well. The 40-hour work week, the weekend and the paid vacation didn't just appear out of thin air, you know!
Although I was reluctant to get involved at first, I have been on the bargaining team for my union for a number of years. Sometimes the responsibility of it all is overwhelming, but I realize what an important job it is. It takes a lot of preparation and perspiration, and we never get everything we want (neither side does), but the written guarantees contained in that contract have made my life and the lives of my co-workers more secure and prosperous. As a result, I believe we are more productive employees.
Are unions perfect? Of course not. We all know that organizations run by human beings are vulnerable to corruption. It pains me when union officials do the wrong thing because I believe that unions should represent a higher standard. But for every Jimmy Hoffa, there are at least a dozen Ken Lays, whose criminal activities often have far more detrimental effects on workers. And the fact is that national union leaders have very little effect on the rest of us at the grass-roots level. The bulk of the work of unions is done by people who are uncompensated, and who give up many of their evenings and weekends to plan, organize and motivate. All of the officers and committee members of my union serve on a volunteer basis.
There also seems to be a belief that it's only weak people who need unions, people who can't do for themselves. The peculiarly persistent American myth is that everyone makes their own destiny, and that "collectivism" is the refuge of the irrresponsible. I reject that characterization. The American worker is not weak. However, the American worker is, in many cases, powerless. Weakness is an internal quality, while powerlessness is something that is imposed externally, by social, political and economic forces, and the way to overcome that powerlessness is to speak with a collective voice.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say that we don't need unions anymore. That workers have everything they need and there's no more room for improvement. Wow, I'd like to know where these people work! Also, are there any openings?
Which brings me around to the title of this blog. Of course, everyone will recognize that I am paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson's famous words, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." (The quote has also been attributed to others, but I'm going with T.J.) Jefferson realized that, once you win something that important, you don't just sit back and coast. And so it is with things like the weekend, or workplace safety, or workers' compensation, or pensions, or overtime, or paid vacation and sick leave, or employer-provided health insurance, and the list goes on.
Believe me, there are well-funded groups out there lobbying state legislatures and the United States Congress to weaken worker protections. The spending of these groups far outpaces the amount that unions give to legislators. According to OpenSecrets.org, an incredibly useful website, the National Education Association spent $1,970,302 on lobbying in 2009. I'll admit that that's a lot of money. But Wal-Mart, a corporation that is notoriously anti-union, spent nearly four times as much, $7,390,000, that same year! Who do you think has more influence in Washington and in statehouses across the country?
In 2005, Senator Edward Kennedy introduced the Healthy Families Act, legislation which would require companies with 15 or more employees to provide up to seven paid sick leave days per year to employees who work a certain number of hours. The bill has never been voted on. Do you think corporate lobbying had anything to do with that? (By the way, my union guarantees me 12 paid sick days per year, and the ability to accumulate any and all unused days for use at a later time. If you don't get any paid sick leave, don't you think you could use some?)
We cannot sit idly by and watch the gains that people fought and died for dwindle away. This is why the union movement is still relevant. If the labor movement disappeared today, I have no doubt that we would see a wholesale return to the worst violations of the past in terms of worker safety, pay and benefits.
Honestly, I see it happening already. It's no coincidence that peak union membership in this country occurred at the same time that a prosperous and productive middle class was born, a middle class that could buy houses and cars, put children through college, and retire comfortably. Now with union membership on the decline, employers are using the precarious state of the economy to treat workers in ever more draconian ways.
So I dedicate this post to all of those past heroes, the ones who felt the billy-club to the head, who worked 16 hour days six or seven days a week, who went hungry while out on the picket lines, or who risked everything for the sake of a greater good. And to all of those who are trying to keep that dream alive today, spending unpaid nights and weekends in cramped motel rooms or offices, living on take-out pizza, stale donuts and coffee, talking one-on-one with workers, organizing, filing grievances, writing contract language, or just listening and understanding.
Happy Labor Day!
And while you're enjoying those three days off, thank a union member.
Oh, you're very welcome!