This weekend we celebrated Labor Day. This should be a time to look back on the struggles of the American worker to achieve the rights and protections that too many of us take for granted today – an 8 hour day, an expectation of safe working conditions, children in school and not at a work site, minimum wage law protections, pay for overtime work, workers compensation and unemployment insurance. Each one of those protections was hard-won.
I think all of us – including the labor movement – could do a far better job of using Labor Day Weekend as a “teaching moment.” What’s the history of the union movement in this country? Why do we need unions? How many workers died in violent confrontations with owners of factories, mills and coal mines? Conditions were dangerous and the pay was low. In 1907, one coal mining accident in West Virginia killed 361 miners.
How about the women who worked in laundries at the turn of the century, (see the case brought by NCL – Muller vs. Oregon against laundry owner Curt Muller limiting the hours women could be forced to work) standing all day with few breaks, lifting soaking wet towels and sheets whose weight caused back and joint injuries, some of them pregnant or suffering chronic illnesses? Or African Americans who stood for 12 to 14 hours a day, often next to their children in a foot of water at canneries? Child labor was scandalous, with children as young as five and six going to work in mills and mines in America only 100 years ago.
I heard Teamsters President James Hoffa speaking over the weekend on the importance of good jobs with good benefits bringing us a middle class in America that can enjoy the fruits of our labor. He called Apple – the company – unpatriotic because they ship jobs overseas and sell their products here to affluent Americans. I see his point.
And sadly today, the middle class jobs that labor union membership can bring have dwindled, as has union membership. Union busting – of the kind we’ve seen with Boeing moving its operations from Washington State –a union friendly place, to South Carolina – an anti-union state, and attacks on the National Labor Relations Board in Congress are at a fever pitch.
But sorry to say we heard precious little about why unions came about over the weekend. That should change – NCL and others must be leaders in having that conversation and continuing to push for good jobs, good benefits and keeping jobs in the hands of the most productive and well-educated workforce in the world – U.S. workers.