Monday, September 5, 2011

Happy Labor Day!

Dear Madame L,

I don't get it about Labor Day. What are we celebrating, anyway? And who cares? Right now I'm one of the many who make up our huge national unemployment statistic, so Labor Day is just another long boring day in which I can't even go job-hunting and can't afford a steak to barbecue tonight.



Dear Deprived,

Madame L happens to come from a family that benefited from the labor movement.

In fact, her father had --- and kept --- a job for many years only because of the influence of labor unions. (He was somewhat ambivalent about the union he belonged to, but he knew it was the reason he had a decent job.)

Many other workers' lives and livelihoods, as well as the respect afforded them and their standing in their communities, have been saved through the efforts of labor unionists who pushed for reasonable working hours and life-saving working conditions. 

Through the labor movement, for example, teachers have gone from being considered old maids with no life outside their schoolroom to including women and men of all ages, married and unmarried, who take those teaching jobs because they're committed to teaching, not because there's nothing else available for them. 

Through the labor movement, for another example, many more disasters like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire have been averted, as laws were established to keep workplace doors and entries unlocked and to enforce safety regulations. 

So Madame L celebrates Labor Day by taking a day off from her usual work chores, even though her distinguished husband most often works through most of that day.

Yet Madame L feels your pain! It's hard to celebrate a holiday that doesn't seem to have any bearing on one's personal life, isn't it. 

Madame L suspects that if you knew more about the holiday and the work of the labor movement throughout U.S. history you might begin to appreciate the day. 

According to Wikipedia, Labor Day was first observed by the Central Labor Union of New York, 129 years ago today, on  September 5, 1882. Oregon was the first state to make it an official state holiday, and it was made a federal holiday in 1894. 

This didn't come about easily: It was only after the U.S. military and U.S. Marshalls killed striking workers during the Pullman Strike of 1894 that Pres. Grover Cleveland and the U.S. Congress realized the seriousness of the issue of workers' rights. That wildcat strike was a response to wage reductions imposed when wages were already low and working conditions were deplorable.

If you watch this short movie and listen to the quotes from both sides of the strike, you may be appalled, as Madame L was, to hear the arrogance of the statements by George Pullman, the greed and intolerance that informed his every decision, and the degrading conditions in which the workers labored. 

This is why we still need a strong labor movement! Madame L's reading of the recent news suggests that wealthy business owners would treat workers in exactly the same way the Pullman company treated its workers, minus federal regulations.

And that's what the labor movement is all about: Making a country in which workers are valued for their labor, paid a living wage, and treated humanely.

While Madame L agrees that abuses have occurred in recent years, she deplores the idea that the correct response to those abuses would be to do away with labor unions or to restrict their collective bargaining rights.

So, here's what Madame L celebrates on Labor Day: 

~~~The right to collective bargaining, because no lone worker has the power to stand up to an employer whose greed overcomes humanity

~~~The right to decent wages and working hours, because without the labor movement, we wouldn't have those

~~~The right to one or two days off every week (a weekend!), including a day to worship God

~~~The resulting government laws and agencies which also protect workers' safety and rights, from OSHA to the EEOC, and everything in between

~~~The legacy to our children of a country in which work and workers are valued as much as businesses and wealthy employers

Happy Labor Day!

Madame L

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