Labor Unions: The People Who Brought You The Weekend

Posted on Sep 4 2013 - 8:08am by Christine Dickason

This week, we recognized Labor Day, a national holiday that has become increasingly apolitical as people see it as just a day off work and a prime time for barbecues.

Labor Day finds its roots, however, in the workers’ strikes that occurred in the 1890s. In 1894, less than a week after several workers were killed by U.S. military in the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland signed into law legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday—one to recognize and celebrate the achievements of American workers.

More importantly, the head of the American Federation of Labor at the time, Samuel Gompers, argued that it was also an opportunity for workers to discuss “their rights and their wrongs.”

Over a century later, less of the workforce is taking the opportunity to encourage this dialogue.

A Pew Research poll published this week found that while 51 percent of Americans view labor unions favorably—a 10 percent increase from last year—only 11.3 percent of the workforce actually belongs to a union.

This may be due to the constant portrayal of labor unions by big corporations, politicians and the media as roadblocks to prosperity.

These depictions could not be further from the truth.

Labor unions provide workers a voice that strengthens the democracy on which our country was founded and revitalizes the middle class. Unions do this through lobbying and collective bargaining, a negotiation process between employers and employees to reach agreements about working conditions, benefits or other concerns.

Some reactionaries seem to see the past through rose-colored lenses. But before labor unions, workers were subject to dangerous and unhealthful working conditions, long hours, discriminatory policies and insultingly low wages. Worried about the current health insurance system? At least we have one. Counting down the days to the weekend? We have the labor movement to thank for that.

It’s time to stop demonizing labor unions and start working to ensure the progression of workers’ rights. Because we’ve still got a long ways to go.

Fifty years after the signing of the Equal Pay Act by President John F. Kennedy, women are still paid only 77 cents for every dollar that men make. Women also must face the challenges of working in a country that does not guarantee paid maternity leave, leading to increased disruption and exclusion in the workforce.

There is no federal legislation to protect LGBT workers from discrimination in the workplace; in fact, in 29 states including Mississippi, it is legal for an employer to fire someone because they are gay. Even in more subtle ways, inequality is perpetuated within the system.

For much of the past five decades, African Americans have experienced a rate of unemployment almost two times higher than whites. Eighty percent of low-income workers do not receive any paid sick days, even though they have been shown to have no negative effect on the economy. And as we’ve seen in the fast-food industry over the past few weeks, many workers still do not earn a livable wage, causing individuals and families to struggle to make ends meet.

Last week was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and most of the attention was focused—understandably so—on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But the march was also driven by a call for economic justice. Marchers came to D.C. with 10 requests, one of which was a national minimum wage that would provide an adequate standard of living.

In 1968, the minimum wage was $1.60 an hour. Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, the minimum wage should be $10.56 in 2013, adjusted for inflation.

Labor unions are crucial to correcting these wrongs.

President Lincoln recognized that workers are the key to U.S. prosperity, as he asserted in his first State of the Union address: “Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves the much higher consideration.” Though few seem to want to admit it, Labor Day is a highly political holiday, in which we should not only recognize the advancements of workers’ rights, but also reflect on what challenges lie ahead.

Let’s work to ensure that Labor Day will not lose its true meaning—and that all workers are able to enjoy the protections and rights they so deserve.

Christine Dickason is a junior public policy leadership major from Collierville, TN.