More Than a 3 Day Weekend

September 3, 2012

Today is Labor Day, a day that millions of Americans don’t have to go to work. Across the country, grills are smoking, pools are splashing, and families are enjoying the last of these summer rays together. When I woke up this morning and began to plan out this luxurious extra day of leisure, I thought about why this holiday exists. I’ll admit that I don’t know too much about labor unions and the history of worker organizing in this country. In my generation, unions are thought of as things of the past. I didn’t learn about the history of labor organizing in school, except for a few events in the 1880’s that I had to regurgitate onto US history tests in high school. All of that union stuff seemed like a nice idea, but a thing of the past.

But this morning, as I sipped my coffee, I thought I would take a step to correct my ignorance and take a moment to appreciate the many workers who fought for the working conditions that I enjoy today. I scanned the New York Times, the Washington Post, and then ventured into the Huffington Post, and even Democracy Now.

I couldn’t find one. Articles about Obama this and RNC that dominated the front pages. There were quite a few articles on the “we built this/ you didn’t built that” Romney-Obama exchange, which made me hopeful that in one of those I might find an article that substantively examined who actually built what we have today in the US… But alas. The only article that I could find that mentioned Labor Day and its origins was an short facetious opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal that advocated that we replace Labor Day with “Corporation Day” since we all know that corporations are the “real job creators.” I was (perhaps naively) surprised to not find any articles that acknowledged the U.S. workers and organizers whose courageous actions are commemorated on this holiday.

So I decided to do a little digging myself. Why were unions important? What role do they play today? The more I read, the more embarrassed I felt for my gaping ignorance on this vital force in the American workplace.  Now, I may be alone in my oblivious and privileged naivety to US labor organizing history, but I suspect that that’s not the case. As Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employee International Union, pointed out, white-collar professionals today generally appreciate what unions did for their parents and grandparents’ generation, but aren’t in unionized themselves and view unions with a mild disdain. There is much discussion around the cause of this shift. A big factor is the shift in how we (white collar, class privileged folks) view blue-collar jobs. We view those workers with far less respect, and we often regard unions with suspicion, as though those workers who would need unions to succeed and inherently weaker and less-deserving of high paying jobs and good benefits. Never mind the fact that a) that’s some grade A classist bullshit, and b) the rise in unionization of the American workforce improved wages and working conditions for all American workers (both union and non-union) and is widely credited as the dominant driving force in the creation our modern middle class. If you are one of the millions of Americans who enjoys a 40 hour work week or one of the 1.3 million that has paid sick leave, you are benefiting from the 20th century fruits of unions and labor organizers. These are working conditions that many people take for granted. But they did not come easily– riots, massacres, marches, and strikes that put worker’s lives and livelihoods at risk. Power is never given up willingly; it must be taken. Not with violence, but with fierce conviction, commitment, and a vision of justice. Labor leaders like Sam Gompers, Mary Harris Jones, and later Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Martin Luther King, Jr., devoted their lives to fighting for dignity, decency, and equality in the workplace. At the height of union membership in 1954, 32 percent of the US workforce was unionized. Where unions the perfect answer to balancing US workers’ needs and the need for national economic growth? No. Racism, gender discrimination, and corruption are all stains in union history. But for various reasons that I’m sure many people who have thought about this for much longer than I have can outline, our collective historical memory focuses on the negatives—both conservatives and liberals alike. Reading about the rich historical and current struggles to organize workers made me realize that I am definitely part of a camp of implicitly union-disdaining liberals who often look down our elitely-educated noses upon the idea that unions were, are, and can be vital tools for building working and middle-class economic and political power. And for that, we are paying a serious price.

Those rights and conditions that those leaders and millions of workers fought so hard for are slowly being eroded today. Today, less than 12 percent of workers– and only 6.9 percent of private sectors– are in unions. 38 percent of US workers don’t have any paid sick leave at all. You get the flu? You better be prepared to find a new job. The US is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave, which ends up hurting not only the financial stability of US households, but also the productivity of our economy. Between one-third and one-fifth of the growth in inequality can be explained by the decline of unions, according to a 2011 Harvard study in the American Sociological Review. As you can see from the graph below, the decline of middle class incomes follows the decline of union membership over the past 50 years. We cannot say that this is a causal relationship in either direction, but the proximity of the two trends is notable. In 1968 the share of income going to the nation’s middle class was 53.2 percent, when 28 percent of all workers were members of unions. Since then, union membership steadily declined alongside the share of income going to the middle class. By 2010 the middle class only received 46.5 percent of income as union membership dropped to its current rate of less than 12 percent of workers.
                                     Source: American Progress Action Fund

Unions fight for the economic dignity of working class Americans, whether they are Democrats, Republicans, white, black, male, female, documented, or undocumented. They helped build the stability and prosperity that this country prides itself on. It’s true that we now operate in an economy that is globalized to a degree that unions in the 1950’s never had to contend with. We need to creative new solutions for effectively organizing workers in such a complex and globalized economy, where both products and workers are transnational. But the structure and the history is there, and the need for platforms for worker voices is ever more pressing. It’s time that those of us with class privilege, most of whom have never held a minimum wage job, or contended with bosses stealing money out of our paychecks, or feared being fired if we got a cold—stepped up and recognized how we have benefited from the efforts of labor organizers and unions, and how millions of workers in our country today do not have a voice in how they are treated in their workplaces. Though I am ashamed of the silence of the mainstream media on this day, I’m grateful that it prodded me to educate myself a bit on a part of American history that I have the privilege of not needing to know.

If you are like me and don’t know much about union history, here are a couple articles I came across that might be useful to you.

Six Ways that Unions Build a Strong Middle Class—Center for American Progress

History of US Labor Unions (a long Wikipedia-style article)

A biography of Mary Harris Jones (who started Mother Jones magazine), who was a tenacious worker organizer and advocate, particularly for female workers:

“Bring Back the 40 Hour Work Week”—


One Comment on “More Than a 3 Day Weekend”

  1. Jean says:

    I meant to comment on this a long time ago! I learned so much from this post. I had no idea that the U.S. is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave. So much work yet to be done… Great piece, Theo!

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