“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.” Albert Einstein
This Labor Day, as you fire up the grill and lament the end of summer, I want to challenge each of you to reflect and remember the history of organized labor that this holiday is supposed to commemorate. 129 years ago, the Central Labor Council of New York organized and celebrated its first Labor Day, which was designed to celebrate the social and economic contributions and successes of American Workers.[i] Despite a past that’s riddled with racism, xenophobia, and sexism –the Labor Movement –both past and present are the reason we have Child Labor Laws, an 8-hour day, overtime pay, health benefits, workplace safety standards, and weekends. These laws did not magically appear, they were the rewards of hard fought battles that men and women paid for with blood, sweat, tears, and in many cases their lives. We are the beneficiaries of many unionists’ sacrifices.
As a professor that teaches about work, organized labor, and immigration, I remind my students that the history of the United States is synonymous with the history of organized labor. How we understand race, masculinity, and citizenship is deeply entrenched in how we understand both worker identity, and what it means to be an “American” worker. David Roediger (1999) reminds us in The Wages of Whiteness that the rise of organized labor coincided with a desire to promote white supremacy and free white labor. Historically, it’s important to understand, that it was during the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, we saw the expansion of what groups were considered “white’ and that it coincided with a desire to consolidate power and privilege for white male workers. Not surprisingly the expansion of whiteness coincided with the growth of racial and ethnic minority worker populations migrating to the United States to provide cheap labor and competition for white workers.[ii] This history is the legacy that organized labor has had to overcome in order to form and create a group that both represents and stands for the “American” worker.
The history of the labor movement in the United States is also a testament to the importance of coalition and collaboration. The history of the Civil Rights Movements demonstrates the power of the combined efforts of the Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Movement. History provides us with “heroes” and more importantly inspiration for understanding that change and transformation is possible in all social institutions. A. Phillip Randolph –a fierce organizer and Civil Rights advocate, challenged union bosses and the American government to eliminate discrimination, particularly in workplaces and industry, and give every worker equal rights and fair wages. He believed that, “Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.[iii]” His life’s work is a testament to the importance of making sure all voices, particularly those that are most often silenced, are heard. Randolph was central in pushing a Civil Rights agenda –starting with his work with the Brotherhood of Pullman Car Porters, and continuing with his steadfast work in organizing epic protests, such as the March on Washington, and finally in pushing the AFL-CIO to address issues of segregation and discrimination in its ranks.
We can look at the history of the United Farm Workers of America to understand the importance of cross ethnic collaboration and mobilization. Although Cesar Chavez is often depicted as the driving force behind the growth of this union –it is important to note that the true history is more complex. Filipino workers were equally important to this movement and instrumental in UFW’s greatest successes. After all, it was Larry Itiliong who originally initiated the Delano Grape Strike. It was Philip Vera Cruz’s ability to organize Filipino workers that helped drive the success of the union. When reading his autobiography, we begin to understand the struggles he faced as a leader, but what remained true –even after he broke ranks with the UFW when it supported the Marcos’ dictatorship was his fundamental belief in workers. He says, “The success of any positive changes in this country depends on the strength of the workers and the organizations that hold the workers together are the unions…. Nothing will really change in this country without the total support of the working class” (154).
Today, who we define as an “American” worker is much more global in nature. Over the past fifteen years many unions have come to realize that in order to garner success, their organizing strategies must not be bound by borders and nation-states. An examination of any industry in the United States shows that workers are more diverse and includes immigrants and citizens, women and men, young and old. As recent studies have shown, union decline accounts for most of the rise in wage inequality[iv]. Yet, despite the fact there is seemingly greater need for unions than ever before, this year we’ve witnessed some of the most vicious attacks on collective bargaining. Wisconsin, Ohio, and 25 other states have proposed drastic revisions on collective bargaining rights, particularly for public workers. Unionized public workers, who represent the final bastion of the middle class in the United States have become the scapegoat for the economic downturn the entire nation is embroiled in. Media and pundits seemingly ignore the fact that big business is funding these campaigns and by all accounts profiting from their efforts. Is it particularly surprising that corporations have bounced back and recorded profits even as American workers are taking home less? (see table at end of blog.)[v] . The attack on workers is not solely related to the middle class, however. Recent anti-immigration legislation that is proposed or initiated in 26 different states across the country has created a narrative that paints immigrants as lazy and undeserving. Media utilize sound bytes that make immigrants the scapegoats for the economic downturn because “they’re taking American jobs.” While factually untrue, these reports create rampant xenophobia and obscure the historical and empirical facts that clearly show that the nation’s economy depends on the labor of immigrants. As seen in the aftermath of the Georgia and Alabama anti-immigration laws –in the absence of immigrants, their agricultural are faltering. So what does this say about how workers are viewed and treated? The current message seems to be, “We want your labor, but only if we can exploit you for it.” The idea that workers have the right to a living wage, benefits, and a fear from discrimination and persecution has seemingly fallen to the wayside. The battle that unions and worker organizations are embroiled in across the country is not simply about maintaining middle class standing, it’s about promoting a more ethical form of capitalism in light of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. It is about ensuring access to resources for workers and their families so that they can have a quality education, access to health care, and the ability to retire.
For me, Labor Day is about honoring the history of organized labor in this country. With all its faults and problems, it serves as a model for how social institutions can change. Instead of passively believing that eventually something will happen, labor organizers have shown us time and time again, that if you account for the needs of communities and workers, change is the outcome of privileging the many above the few. Charles Darrow once said, “With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men (and women) that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men (and women) than any other association.”
So this Labor Day, I encourage you to support workers. All actions, big or small, matter. Tell the managers at Ralphs, Albertson’s, or Von’s that if they fail to sign an equitable contract with UFCW you won’t be shopping there any more. Sign petitions supporting collective bargaining in your state. Boycott the Hyatt until they sign their union contract. If nothing else, take a moment and remember all that we’ve gained from the sacrifices of the workers who came before us.
Union Yes! Si Se Puede.
Source: Jared Bernstein, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities
[ii] Numerous scholars discuss this including (but not limited to): Evelyn Nakano Glenn (2000) in “”Unequal freedom: how race and gender shaped American citizenship and labor;” Vicki Ruiz (1987) “Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950;” Chris Friday (1995) “Organizing Asian-American Labor: The Pacific Coast Canned-Salmon Industry, 1870-1942”
[iv] Western, B. & Rosenfeld, J (2011). “Unions, Norms, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality” in American Sociological Review. Volume 76, Number 4, pgs 513-537.