STAND UP. SPEAK UP. IT’S YOUR TURN
Once again we have reached Labor Day.
Labor Day is the unofficial end of the summer and for many people it is an excuse to have everyone over for one last BBQ. Too many have forgotten what Labor Day is all about. They have forgotten why we celebrate Labor Day.
I would be lying if I told you that my family spent Labor Day talking about workers and strikes. Like most Americans, we spent the long weekend traveling for one last summer trip.
I will say one of my first memories was walking the picket line with my mother and hundreds of other nurses who were protesting budget cuts that eliminated jobs and reduced pay. I do not even remember what union it was that led the protest or if my mother was a member before the strike. Those are things we just never talked about when I was a kid.
As I grew up I learned more and more about the history of Labor Day. I learned of the horrible working conditions of the late 1800s and the early 1900s. I learned the difference between a strike and a lock-out. I learned about unions and how they shaped who we are as workers today.
In short, I learned about the true meaning of “labor” and why we celebrate Labor Day.
The sad fact is that many people have forgotten that it was the labor unions that fought for better working conditions and on-the-job safety programs. It was the labor unions that fought for eight-hour workdays, weekends, and overtime. It was the labor unions that fought for paid vacation time, paid sick leave, healthcare and retirement security. It was the labor unions that ensured equal pay for equal work regardless of sex or the color of your skin.
It was a labor union contract that first gave same-sex couples the right to include their partners on their healthcare plans, giving them the same rights as any other married couple.
It was labor unions that kept the corporations in check, refusing to let their greed dominate the needs of their workers and their communities. By demanding higher wages in the mills and shops, unions helped to lift the wages of all workers. They created the middle class that we are so desperately searching for again. Workers were paid well and they spent that money in their communities, and that led to decades of economic prosperity.
However, in the late 1970s a new era of individual greed began to surface and people forgot about working together. Manufacturing began to slow down as technology became more dominant. Workers moved out of the factories and into the office buildings.
Over time, membership in labor unions declined and the middle class began to shrink along with it. Workers wages became stagnant as productivity skyrocketed. Women began to enter the workforce en masse; some to fulfill personal goals and others because the traditional, one-working-parent household could not pay the bills anymore.
After 30 years of decline, what do we as a country have to show for it? We have a country with more than 15 percent of our citizens living in poverty, and 1-in-5 children living in poverty. We have millions of people working 50, 60, or even 70 hours a week just to feed their families.
America used to be different. American companies used to respect workers, not treat them like disposable cups, tossing them aside for a new one every day. American companies used to take pride our country. These companies paid their taxes and together we built a national highway system, airports, hospitals, parks, and libraries.
What happened to that country? Are we completely doomed?
I say no. The tide has reached its lowest point and is beginning to rise again. People are beginning to see that we need to stand up together and fight for each other and our communities. People are starting to demand the right to form a union in their workplace, whether they are college professors or fast food workers. Public polling shows more support for labor unions than any time in the past 15 years.
I see it in my own children, too. Recently at a family get-together someone mentioned that they just purchased a trinket from Wal-Mart. My oldest daughter piped right up and said, “We don’t shop at Wal-Mart because they treat their workers badly.”
My wife and I looked at each other and smiled. Parenting win!
So this Labor Day take a few minutes to read about the true history of Labor Day. Talk with your kids about what it was like for people before labor unions. Ask yourself: do you want to go back to those days?
As for me, I will be honoring those union members of the past who fought and died in the labor movement, by walking down Main Street in our local Labor Day parade with my union brothers and sisters, my wife, and my children, proudly wearing my union T-shirt for all to see.
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Matthew Murray is founder of the NH Labor News. He is a union member and advocate for labor. He also works with other unions and members to help spread our message, and oversees the NH Labor News Facebook page. Follow @NHLabor_News on Twitter.