The first Monday of September is Labor Day. If you have the day off you can thank a labor union member. If you don't, thank them anyway. We have much to be grateful for.
The Federal Labor Day holiday was established in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland as a way of making amends to the labor movement in that election year. He declared the holiday a week after he had sent 12,000 Federal troops and U.S. Marshals to end the Pullman strike, resulting in the death of some strikers and the arrest of the union leaders.
Back then, organized labor was considered illegal but companies demanding 16 hour work days and 7 day work weeks at subsistence wages were not.
Like most Americans, I have never belonged to a union but I am grateful for their accomplishments. They are many including the 40 hour work week, overtime pay, universal public education, paid vacations, minimum wages, dignified retirement, paid holidays, compensation for workplace injuries, employer provided health care, Social Security, Medicare, work place hygiene and safety, and on and on. Most of what we consider basic workers rights today were the result of labor union efforts.
It has become fashionable in some political circles to denigrate organized labor. We see this political movement having used regulatory processes and questionable but unrestrained practices to reduce private sector unions to shadow of their former strength; now turning its sights on public sector unions. (When did teachers, policemen, and firefighters stop being heroes and become the villains to be stripped of pay and benefits?)
The arguments for this run the gamut from the radicals who seem to think that the two words, “union” and “thug” are synonymous to those who more genteelly opine that, “Unions may have been useful once but we don’t need them anymore.”
There is little point arguing with the first group, they are less interested in reason than effect. The second group is suggesting that they are practical rather than dogmatic. To them I would ask a simple question, “What makes anyone think that the good things that labor unions accomplished couldn’t be washed away if there were no organization to defend them.”
In many parts of the world, workers have no option but to accept subsistence wages in conditions that are in some ways worse than slavery. (At least slavery included some moral obligation to provide for injured, sick and elderly.) Many modern factories simply discard those who can no longer keep up.
An executive who is forced by competition to utilize subsistence workers in Asia or Africa could not fail to do so here if the opportunity were available. Clearly the same relentless logic that drives a company to seek the lowest cost of production, including labor, applies equally in the US as overseas. Unions are the political force that resists that.
We have seen that play out in the United States. From 1932 to the mid-50’s, unionization of the American work force rose from about 5% to about 25% and the middleclass prospered. From 1969 to present unionization has declined to about 6% and the middleclass has lost 30% of its share of American’s wealth.
Corporations, as useful as they are, are nothing more than organized capital. There is no coherent moral, economic, or political argument for preferring organized capital over organized labor.
In fact the moral argument goes the other way. If we believe, as both liberals and conservatives do, that human rights are inherent, God given, than the right to organize and bargain for the value of one’s work must be such a human right. Saint Paul, said that, “A laborer is worthy of his wages.” On the other hand, what right did Jesus ascribe to capital when he said, talking about money, “Render unto Ceasar the things that are Ceasar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
While we may not personally benefit from each accomplishment of the labor movement, all of us have enjoyed some of them and most of us have enjoyed many. For that we should show our appreciation.
Happy Labor Day and Thank You!