Sunday, August 31, 2008

Labor Day: What Does it Mean?

Labor Day is upon us, the last day of summer, right? Well, it used to have a much bigger meaning and it still does for those of us who grew up through the blood, sweat and tears of the working class. My father was forced into the Lawrence mills, the shoe factories in the eighth grade, forced to work piece by piece. You didn't receive a wage, only how many shoes you could "piece" together in a period of time. Sound familiar? I guess it sounds like China and Vietnam, but we used to treat our workers just like the Chinese are being treated today that the Olympics so eloquently masked.

As the industrial revolution dawned in the late 1800's our workers worked an average of 12 hour days, seven days a week in order to make a living in the northern cities (Beijing?). Women and children worked in the mills as well and in my home town of Lawrence, Massachusetts women led the movement for the Bread and Roses strike of 1912. As working conditions deteriorated because corporation sought more profit at the expense of it's labor force labor unions emerged. On September 5, 1982 10,000 workers marched from city hall to union square as the first ever Labor Day parade. These workers took an unpaid day off to honor America's workers and voice their concern with working conditions. Congress would not legalize the holiday until 12 years later. On May 11, 1894, workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago struck to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. On June 26 the American Railroad Union called a boycott of all Pullman railway cars. Within days, 50,000 rail workers complied and railroad traffic out of Chicago came to a halt. On July 4, President Grover Cleveland dispatched troops to Chicago. Much rioting and bloodshed ensued, but the government’s actions broke the strike and the boycott soon collapsed.

The strike brought worker’s rights to the public eye and Congress declared, in 1894, that the first Monday in September would be the holiday for workers, known as Labor Day. The day would be in September as not to be confused with May Day on May 1st that the world celebrates and was initiated by the Socialists. We owe a debt of gratitude to these folks, not just because we have tomorrow off, but because we no longer have an 84 hour work week, we have benefits (some of us), weekends off (some of us), paid vacation (some of us). We have come a long way, but of course over the past decade or so we have back tracked especially for the working class. Only about 16% of our work force is unionized and most of that is government unions. And what is the debt of gratitude our President wishes to show us - to our government unions?

The Bush administration is weighing an executive order that would eliminate a union-preferred method of labor organizing at large government contractors, according to people familiar with the situation. Labor leaders prefer a card-check system in which workers can form a union if a majority of them sign a union-authorization card. Companies generally prefer a secret-ballot election.

The issue has become a factor in some Senate races and the presidential campaign. Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, supports legislation favoring the card-check approach. Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, opposes such legislation.

The card-check approach is favored because people who wish to have a union sign a card and give it to their union leader and if a majority of the cards are signed the get to form a union. This is how it is done in most of the western world, in fact in some European countries the workers can just negotiate with the owners and tell them they want a union and the company will abide.

Here, it is done differently, these companies prefer the secret ballot elections so they can intimidate its workers, hold anti-union campaigns throughout the election process, and as is often the case fire the leaders of the union movement, which is illegal. It doesn't matter, however because those who are fired eventually do get some compensation, but it is years later when the campaign is over and the election is lost. Even if an election is won it becomes impossible to negotiate a contract.

A card check system is pro-worker and on this Labor Day the Bush administration should be ashamed for signing such a thing. But, what do we expect from the most anti-labor government since the industrial revolution? Here is hoping in November.

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