It is odd. We celebrate this weekend for all the wrong reasons. We recognize it as the “unofficial end to Summer,” the last hoorah to go to the beach or Summer party before schools begin. Only a select few actually understand what the holiday is about. Politically speaking, for many, it is not something that is wanted to be talked about.
We know why we celebrated Veterans on Veteran’s Day. We know why we honor and memorialize our fallen on Memorial Day. But Labor Day is not just a day off or a long weekend.
Labor Day recognizes the advances of the Labor Movement, as well as those who have contributed to the advances and achievements. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to recognize Labor Day as a holiday. By the time the United States recognized it as a national holiday in 1894, thirty states had already recognized this annual recognition (Wikipedia).
The key is what brought us to this day. It begins with the “evil” trade unions and the labor movement. The whole idea of this movement was to create a better and safer working environment, and to be able to negotiate for better wages and benefits. The concept is simple. It is more successful to negotiate as a group, than individually. Someone asks for something individually, it is very easy to tell that one person “no.” But if an employer risks a work interruption, a “strike,” where workers refuse to work until the company and union comes to an agreement, the employer is likely to not opt for the work stoppage and risk profits. It should be noted, union workers do not earn their pay while on strike, and unless the union is financially prepared, even health benefits are at risk by a “strike.” It is not really an option that neither side wants.
You can thank the Labor Movement for the “8 hour work day” which became effective in 1886. Can you imagine what it would be like to have an employer require you to work sixteen hour days? You can be thankful for breaks during the work day. You can be thankful for the establishment of OSHA requiring workplace protections.
Labor Unions came into the picture in 1935 with the signing of the National Labor Relations Act. This allowed workers to organize into unions and engage in collective bargaining (negotiate a contract) to earn better wages, safer working conditions, benefits, and job security.
In the beginning, unions had a major impact on such dangerous jobs as coal mining (a separate story deserving its own post), and many other large industrial jobs. Eventually other public sector jobs would also join into the labor union representation such as teachers and police.
Over the years, unions have been portrayed as both evil and necessary. Evil, because to provide a better work environment means it costs a company more profit to provide such. Politically, as companies lobby the government for assistance against labor unions. Obviously, if a company can pay someone less, they will make more profit. But the question is, at what cost to the employee? The answer, a company owner only cares about the profit, not who earns it for them.
If you have never belonged to a union, it is very easy to be jaded against them. Chances are, all you have ever witnessed, are news stories about strikes. Whether they be transport workers, nurses, airline pilots, teachers, or whoever, if you do not belong in a union, the immediate warcry is “greedy bastards” when the workers are shown on strike, asking for better conditions and more pay. And why that warcry? Because it is likely, that person does not have that representation, and thereby deems it unfair since they do not have the opportunity to have the same negotiating power. But you do. You choose not to.
Unions have typically been portrayed as thugs in Hollywood (both of these were great movies by the way, “Fist” starring Sylvester Stallone, and “Norma Rae” starring Sally Field). There is no doubt that there have been issues of violence associated with labor negotiations. But I would argue, that for the most part, the benefits of being represented far outweigh the benefits of not being represented.
Personally speaking, my grandmother belonged to the Electrical Workers Union, and was even a treasurer for her local organization. I laugh at the thought of my grandmother being a “tough guy” in a union, as she stood only 4 foot 7 inches tall, and was quiet in appearance. My mother also worked with the Electrical Workers Union.
Then came my turn. But up until that point, I was one, like many, opposed to unions, for the same reasons as others, misconceptions leading to unfair judgments courtesy of my jealousies. In 1997, an opportunity came up to work for a major pharmaceutical company, with the entry level position, including union membership. I would become the third generation belonging to a union, oddly, the Oil, Atomic, Chemical Workers union, yes, in pharmaceutical. Immediately, I would see the difference and the benefits to me.
In 1988, I was diagnosed with cancer. This made me uninsurable for health insurance, life insurance. Hell, employers did not even want to hire me at all, just because I had cancer. But the first benefit I received following my probationary period? Guaranteed Health and Life insurances. You see, the union negotiates this for their workers. That is why they call it collective bargaining. Because it benefits their entire group. Everyone in that group has to have the same thing. I could not be turned down just because I had cancer.
Sure, the money was also good. And compared to other pharmaceutical companies that did not have union representations, my counterparts were lucky to make even half of what I was making.
Work environment? If I felt my work area was unsafe, or equipment was lacking, I could count on my union leadership to demand action. In industrialized jobs, workers are automatically at a higher risk for injury and death, and deserve all precautions to keep them as safe and protected as possible.
And a big thing with unions, job security. Do you know anyone who was fired just because a boss did not like the otherwise productive employee? Have you ever been laid off from work, after working decades, while the company kept someone who just started, simply because they made less money? Seniority is one of the pillars of the labor movement, job security.
Of course, there are problems within the unions, the slackers who goof off while other good hard workers carry a respective work ethic. Some of these get into trouble, and seemingly get away with it, unscathed. That is the benefit of a union, representation to get you out of trouble, by accident, or intentionally.
My experience with the union, I will always support unions. Besides finally obtaining insurances that I was otherwise denied, my wages allowed me to purchase a home, and allowed me the opportunity to bring the two most important people into my life, my daughters.
And when I needed my union the most, in 2008, following my emergency bypass surgery, for my heart, caused by damage from my cancer treatments nearly twenty years earlier, when my employer threatened to fire me, as my FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) days had expired and demanded me to return to work, even though I had not recovered. My union fought for me with the Americans With Disabilities Act protections. You try to do this working for Walmart. Eventually, I would become a shop steward, a “lawyer” or union representative for my co-workers myself. And I was a good one. As one of my co-workers noted, I may not have been well liked by all (I was a stickler for rules, so I could be a pain in the ass), but everyone knew I would support and protect everyone.
I worked for my employer another five years before my disabilities became too much for me, and for my employer to accommodate my health restrictions.
When it came to my early retirement, my union took care of me as well.
The same cannot be said for my peers with other companies who do not have representation, doing the exact same work as me. But envy should be held against me, because I had representation that I was worth as a human being? Or should there be displeasure in the fact that someone is either unable or unwilling to establish representation?
As you are out on the beach today, or having a barbecue, be glad for unions and the labor movement. That is why you are hopefully not being forced to work today. And if you are being forced to work… I hope you are being compensated properly.