While you’re celebrating Labor Day, please remember why this day is a holiday. And while you’re at it, think of how much better your life is because of labor unions. Even if nobody in your family is a union member, just think of these everyday words: weekend, overtime, paid vacation, retirement pension, medical benefits, break periods, safe working conditions.
None of these concepts would exist today without labor unions and the sacrifices they made.
In the late 1800s, 125,000 railroad workers went on strike. The government called in federal troops and several thousand special deputies. The strike was broken and thousands of workers were blacklisted.
In 1902, 100,000 miners in Pennsylvania went on strike. They kept the mines closed all summer. They ended up getting a 10% wage increase and a shorter workday.
In 1911, 150 workers in New York City were killed when a fire swept through their factory. All of the safety exits had been locked, allegedly to “prevent loss of goods.” The ensuing investigation brought about lots of today's industrial safety measures.
In 1912, 50,000 textile workers went on strike in Lawrence, MA. Women, children and non-violent protesters were attacked by police and vigilantes. Public outrage ultimately forced the mill owners to agree to higher wages and a shorter workday.
But by the 1920s, the post-World War I depression brought wages down and union membership declined. Corporate PR hacks were able to equate labor unions with Bolsheviks and Communists. Strikebreaking, blacklisting and vigilante attacks were common. Lots of workers could only get jobs by signing a pledge that they wouldn’t try to join or form a union.
The president of the National Association of Manufacturers stated that the trade union movement was “an un-American, illegal and infamous conspiracy.” The unions’ quest for higher wages, shorter hours and regulation of child labor were all portrayed as a vicious Communist plot; Big Business would be the hero who rescued America from this evil menace.
Maybe you’re thinking “OK, we’ve got all these things now. We don’t need no steenking unions.” Oh?
18,000 machinists are on strike against Boeing. Jumping on the bandwagon, Boeing is trying to reduce workers’ pay and benefits. Yet again, a few executives with seven-figure salaries are trying to squeeze every last drop out of their employees. Hey, it’s the 1920s again.
The Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers and the Teamsters have all split from the AFL-CIO, the backbone of American labor for 50 years. This means the AFL-CIO has lost 4.6 million members and $20 million in membership dues. (That sloshing and gurgling you hear is the sound of millions of Republicans drooling with glee.)
More and more companies have been cutting wages and benefits and eliminating pensions, while their Boards of Directors’ seven-figure bonus packages remain untouched and non-negotiable. When the going gets tough, fuck your employees.
Maybe your salary, benefits and pension plan aren’t being threatened. Yet. But remember that famous quote from Nazi Germany: “When they came for the Jews I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t a Jew…” (etc., you’re familiar with it). If you stay complacent and uninvolved while company after company reduces wages and eliminates pensions, there won’t be anyone left to fight for you when your benefits get eliminated.
Be very afraid.
Happy Labor Day.