Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What Labor Day is really about: Honoring the work of America's union movement

What is Labor Day?

Why is everything closed on the first Monday in September? Why do we get a day off from school only a few days after school has just begun?

As a young child, before I studied history and jumped into politics as an activist, a tiny fraction of my September every year was devoted to wondering what Labor Day was and why I was treated to a three day weekend so soon after the first day of class. I can't remember anyone ever bothering to explain it to me, so it turned into an annual mental ritual until I started picking up history books and reading them cover to cover (I'd run out of fiction to read, so that left nonfiction).

And therein I discovered the answer: Labor Day is a day of reflection, meant to honor the great gains won through blood, tears, and sweat by America's union movement, although the idea for the holiday comes from Canada.

After the Civil War, during a period in U.S. history best known as the Gilded Age, American workers found themselves on the losing end of a growing disparity between themselves and a wealthy elite. The wealthy, captained by robber barons like John D. Rockefeller, monopolized entire industries, creating vast fortunes through dishonest and unethical business practices.

Workers found themselves treated by employers as replaceable, individually unimportant beings entitled to nothing.

To change this dismal situation, workers began organizing together into unions to achieve the strength they needed to force employers to acknowledge their rights and offer basic benefits. And for decades thereafter, they struggled mightily to better their lives and the lives of their fellow Americans.

As President Obama eloquently summarized in his speech earlier today:
We remember that the rights and benefits we enjoy today were not simply handed out to America’s working men and women.

They had to be won.

They had to be fought for, by men and women of courage and conviction, from the factory floors of the Industrial Revolution to the shopping aisles of today’s superstores. They stood up and spoke out to demand a fair shake; an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Many risked their lives. Some gave their lives. Some made it a cause of their lives-like Senator Ted Kennedy, who we remember today.

So let us never forget: much of what we take for granted-the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, health insurance, paid leave, pensions, Social Security, Medicare-they all bear the union label. It was the American worker-union men and women-who returned from World War II to make our economy the envy of the world. It was labor that helped build the largest middle class in history.

So even if you’re not a union member, every American owes something to America’s labor movement.
America's union movement is the reason families can be together when a mother gives birth to a new child, the reason workdays don't stretch on from before dawn till after dusk, and the reason seniors can retire in dignity without being forced to stay on the job till the day of their death. Like the President said, even those who aren't union members can thank progressivism, and specifically the union movement, for these basic economic freedoms and protections.

These days we take so much for granted that it's hard to remember there was a time when workers everywhere were treated with a cold, ruthless indifference. Many corporations and wealthy business owners, unfortunately, still treat their workers unfairly and have gone to great lengths to intimidate and discourage them from organizing into unions. The Employee Free Choice Act, a bill before Congress, would address this situation and make it harder for powerful business owners and executives to interfere with unionization attempts.

President Obama had the good sense to mention the Employee Free Choice Act today in addition to talking about healthcare reform:
And just as we know that we must adapt to all the changes and challenges of a global economy, we also know this: in good economic times and bad, labor is not part of the problem. Labor is part of the solution.

That’s why Secretary Solis has made it a priority at the Labor Department to protect workers - your safety, your benefits, your right to organize and bargain collectively. It’s why some of the first executive orders I issued overturned the previous administration’s attempts to stifle organized labor. It’s why I support the Employee Free Choice Act... to level the playing field so it’s easier for employees who want a union to form a union. Because when labor is strong, America is strong. When we all stand together, we all rise together.
Amen. Here's to the day the Employee Free Choice Act becomes the law of this land, shepherded through Congress by our forty fourth President, Barack Obama.

Here's to the generations of workers that came before us who fought tirelessly so that we could lead freer and happier lives.

And here's to a better future that will see economic injustice ended and protections for workers reaffirmed, not just here at home, but all over the world.


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