What does this Labor Day mean for working folks?
Really, not a damn thing, other than you can buy a mattress for 30% off and can no longer wear white.
This holiday originated with craft unions calling for a day to honor working men and women in 1882. But it wasn’t an official day off or holiday – workers originally had to strike to celebrate it. That’s right. To get a day off to honor our work, we had to go on strike. Labor Day was made an official holiday only as a sap to workers after federal troops murdered two strikers and broke the Pullman Workers union in 1894, forcing them to sign pledges never to unionize again.
So, in fact, Labor Day was instituted as a celebration of the victory of big business over Labor.
But it didn’t defeat solidarity or the will of working people to fight for better pay, better workplaces, and more democracy where they work and where they live.
This is where the lessons of the past inform the challenges of the present. This is where we can look to the perseverance and ultimate success of labor in the United States as a path forward today.
Strikes and withholding our labor was how we won back then, it’s how we conversed when management wouldn’t talk, and it’s how we settled grievances. If there was an unjust firing or work rule change, we struck. We just said no, and reaffirmed that our labor and our work was our part of the bargain. We understood that as workers we are not children. Striking was our way of saying: “we won’t and don’t have to obey you. You are not listening to us and treating us as equals. Let us show you what equal looks like.”
Over time, corporations wised up and understood that workers and OUR labor was valuable and crucial to their business and success. We all agreed good jobs were crucial to the success of business and our economy.
But something happened on the way to the 21st century. Companies didn’t cut that deal with us anymore. They just cut us. Corporations’ attacks on Unions reduced the right to associate in a Union by more than 50% in the last 40 years (we are at about 11%). And as a result, the overall level of inequality is at or near the worst it’s ever been. Over 43% of American workers are either poor or low income.
These corporations have no heart, no god, no flag. Their promises mean nothing and their actions benefit only themselves.
So I say: this isn’t a holiday to celebrate. It is a call to arms and a day to reaffirm our commitment to the fight for justice, respect, and fair treatment.
President | UFCW 770