Monday, September 02, 2013

Welcome Labor Day

Labor Day is more than just the unofficial end of summer and an extra day for grilling hot dogs.

The day has been set aside to honor the sacrifices and social and economic gains of the American worker. It has been an official holiday since 1887, which was actually before many important gains for workers were implemented by law. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act was not implemented until 1938. This Act put minimum wage in place and gave workers the right to be paid for overtime. All states must adhere to the minimum protections provided by this law; some states have better protections for workers. (Virginia isn't one of them.)

Unions played a big part in these gains for employees. Thanks to unions, workers have a 40-hour work week, children aren't slaves, and women (supposedly) have equal opportunity. Some workers also have retirement pensions. Many of the good things in life are the results of unionized labor.

My husband has long been a member of Local 1132, which is the Roanoke chapter of the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters). For a short while I was a member of the National Writers Union.

Business owners may not agree, but I think a happy and contented workforce is much more productive than a stressed-out, underpaid and overworked one. When you take a horse out and beat it and work it into a lather, eventually the thing either falls down dead or rears up and kicks the daylights out of you, and that is where we are in the workforce these days. Some business owners are so busy gulping up profits that they are ignoring the health, happiness, and humanity of their workers.

We need more unions and better worker protections. This is not a popular stance in my wildly Republican community, but anyone who reviews their history and thinks about what is going on must realize that without union organizing we would not be the country we are today. We would not have had the strong workforce and middle-class standards we have enjoyed for the last 70 years. It is these gains that business and corporate owners are attempting to undermine, and doing so successfully. It will not lead to good things for all but instead has lead to great things for a few and lesser things for the rest. Life isn't fair, I'm told, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be.

Many people died so that we could have better lives. For example, in 1886, the Haymarket Riot broke out, a conflict in Chicago between workers and business owners. The workers wanted an 8-hour work day; business owners wanted to keep beating that horse. Forty thousand workers walked off their jobs. At the McCormick Reaper factory, violence lead police to kill six workers. The next day at a demonstration, police advanced on a crowd and three civilians and seven police officers died (some from friendly fire). Later, four of the leaders of the strike movement were hanged, the result of a trail later found to be illegal.

In 1894, during the Pullman strike, the US government sent out federal Marshalls and more than 12,000 Army soldiers to force striking workers off the tracks so that the railroads would resume running. The strike was the result of a severe cut in wages for workers at Pullman. The workers organized under the American Railway Union. The Union members refused to run trains that pulled Pullman cars. During the strike, 30 workers were killed.

In 1911, more than 146 people - mostly women and immigrants - died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. After this tragedy, many changes in Labor Laws took place to ensure that doors were chained shut and that sprinklers and other fire-safety measures were in place.

There are reasons for the rules and regulations that have been implemented. Yes, some of them may be out of date or ill-conceived, but that doesn't mean you throw out all the rules simply because one or two doesn't work anymore. It means you update and you make positive, healthy changes.

Let's all work to move workers forward, not backwards, shall we?


  1. How true. Apart from the workers who died fighting for better wages and working conditions for all, far more have died in workplace accidents. It is still happening, though very under-reported (ordinary people dying just because they set out to work expecting to get home to their families in the evening isn't "sexy" - unless it involves violence of some kind). Farm work is some of the deadliest, and children on farms are very vulnerable. Having health and safety rules isn't enough - they need to be enforced, not weakened, as many Western governments are proposing to satisfy the business community.

    By the way, I hate it when people dismiss arguments with "Life isn't fair". Life is what we make it. If we act unfairly it won't be fair. But that's a moral choice for us to make. I fail to understand how avowed Christians (which they often are) can stand there and effectively say: "I choose to act unfairly because it's to my advantage, and I can't care less about those who are harmed by it."

  2. Excellent post, Anita. Our current governor started union-busting (particularly targeting teachers and those in the health care industry, such as nurses) as soon as he took office -- resulting in daily protests that kept us in national news for months. He promised more jobs, but we've actually gone the opposite direction, at one point dropping to 49th in business growth. He has turned down opportunities that would bring thousands of jobs or provide basic health care for the masses, and done everything he can to make life more difficult for people already struggling. The sooner we can try to boot this guy out the better!


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