Labor Day Weekend is here, a time for parties, camping trips, and conventions. Whoohoo! A 3 day weekend! But it should mean far more than that to you. The Labor Movement in America earned us all a lot of benefits. So go celebrate Labor Day like it’s your birthday.
The Accidental Labor Organizer
I happen to know a bit about organized labor. In 1999, I worked for a company that made us work on ergonomically dangerous equipment. I developed a repetitive strain injury, and though Workers Comp covered my medical treatment, the company did nothing to correct the problem.
So I did what any of you would do. I took action. No, I didn’t hire a lawyer and sue. I called up AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Recording Artists, and asked for an appointment with the Union president.
He met with me, then sent me home with a stack of Union organizing cards. If I could get the majority of my co-workers to sign for a union vote, AFTRA could come in and represent us.
There was only one catch. If management found out what I was up to before I submitted the cards, they could fire me on the spot and the Union could not protect me. Gulp.
But my co-workers had my back, and two days later I returned to AFTRA with signed cards from 90% of the unit. No one ratted me out, though Management soon figured out who the shit-disturber was. And just as the Union president warned, they went after me.
The Empire Strikes Back
They started by changing my schedule from the weekdays to weekends, and from morning shift to graveyard. Then they cut my hours just enough to deny me health care coverage. Moves designed to make me quit.
Meanwhile, AFTRA came in, conducted a vote, and the employees chose union representation by an overwhelming margin. I got to supervise the balloting on voting day, as an official Witness chosen by the National Labor Relations Board. That was a cool day at work.
But I would not be around to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I resisted the illegal treatment for a while, but soon gave into their pressure and left for a better job.
Return Of The Jedi
As it turned out, the Union couldn’t prevent the company from violating my rights under the National Labor Relations Act. They could only sue to make me whole after the fact.
So sue we did. It took a full year, but I had my day in court. I testified as the witness for the prosecution, in a lawsuit brought by the National Labor Relations Board. That was a cool day too.
In the end, the judge acknowledged the company’s wrongdoing and pushed for a settlement. I got a check for ten times what the company owed me – enough for a new synthesizer and a week’s vacation in Hawaii. Probably my coolest day ever.
A New Appreciation
The whole experience left me a bit wiser, and a whole lot more appreciative. Grateful for the sacrifices other people made to get the National Labor Relations Act signed into law back in 1935. Though most Americans aren’t represented by a collective bargaining agreement today, most of us have been receiving benefits for generations thanks to the labor movement.
It’s easy to complain about Union workers. Always the joke about a group of Union guys resting on their shovels watching one man dig. And there’s been corruption in Union leadership just as in corporate leadership. You’ve probably heard a few Jimmy Hoffa jokes as well. These are the stereotypes we know about Unions.
But we owe those folks plenty. Their willingness to fight for fair wages and workplace treatment benefits us all.
Things most of us have taken for granted. Things like…
in 1911, 146 low-wage immigrant workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, due to criminally unsafe working conditions. It was the deadliest workplace incident in New York history, right up until the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.
Public outcry from this tragedy, and steady advocacy from labor unions, led to the formation of OSHA, which has been protecting us on the job ever since. If you’ve ever had a company issue you a hard hat, steel-toed boots, an ergonomic office chair or computer accessories, you have the Labor Movement to thank for it. And if you do get injured on the job, you can thank them for the Worker’s Comp and State Disability Insurance that will make you whole again.
The main reason Congress got away with voting 54 times to undo the Affordable Care Act, is that the vast majority of working Americans get their health insurance from their employers.
But if it weren’t for the Labor Movement, you wouldn’t be getting company-sponsored health insurance. There were no employer-sponsored health benefits before WWII. It took the threat of a strike by organized labor to create our current system. If you have an employer plan, thank those lazy, shovel-leaning union workers for sticking their necks out for you. And their corrupt Mafia bosses too.
Paid Time Off
The 40-Hour work week, weekends, lunch breaks, vacation and sick days are all benefits we enjoy thanks to the Labor Movement.
Back in the day, companies would work you for as little and as long as they could. They’d work your kids to the bone in factories too. And if you balked, they’d bring in slaves from Africa or low-paid workers from China and cut you right out of the deal.
And you could forget about retirement. There were no such things as pensions or 401k contributions before organized labor. This country has a long history of workers being exploiting for profit.
So Party Like It’s Your Birthday
That’s right. Get together with friends and family, and do it up right. Just make sure you honor those who sacrificed so you get paid well and treated fairly at work. And when politicians start pouting anti-union rhetoric, remember who’s always had your back on the job.
Then if you feel like walking on the wild side, go ahead and show up for work next Tuesday wearing white slacks. Because I for one will fight for your right to wear white after Labor Day.