How many Americans have suffered and even died so that we could enjoy this past 3-day weekend? Labor Day is one of those holidays that we all take for granted. Consider for a moment what our lives would be like if the labor movement hadn’t persisted and prevailed.
Paid vacation, overtime pay, sick leave, social security, child labor laws, worker’s compensation, pensions, whistleblower protections, workplace safety, military leave and so much more has been made possible through the labor movement, particularly organized unions.
The labor movement should be required learning for all students as it is a very important part of American history. Most Americans have no appreciation of the sacrifices that so many workers have made over the past centuries to improve our working conditions. Often, workers were risking their lives just to earn an honest day’s living. Those who participated in strikes (demanding better pay, safer work conditions, etc.) demonstrated true valor as they were often beaten, arrested or even killed in the process.
During America’s industrial revolution, worker safety was not a consideration for industry leaders. Workers were not just under-appreciated but truly expendable. Mules and donkeys were considered far more valuable by companies than men since laborers were plentiful and could be counted on to work for cheap.
Until the early 1900s, the vast majority of employees worked 12 to 14-hour days. Labor unions had been fighting for decades to reduce the work hour requirement. In 1866, the National Labor Union called on Congress to create an 8-hour workday. It failed to pass but the idea grew in popularity among the labor force. A year later, Illinois passed a law capping the workday at 8 hours. When employers refused to comply, workers went on strike. Finally in 1940, the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended, thanks to lobbying efforts by labor unions, limiting the workweek to 40 hours.
Workplace disasters were commonplace. When workers were injured or killed on the job, companies would do their best to place the blame on the victim. Courts typically sided with companies. Any compensation awarded was minimal. Consequently, industrialization proceeded with little regard for human safety.
In 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. The factory doors had been locked–a standard practice of industry employers to discourage unauthorized breaks–and 146 workers perished. The owners were not arrested or put out of business. They were merely forced to pay a few dollars for each worker killed. In the end, they profited off the deaths of their employees through an insurance claim on the building. Two years later, one of the factory owners had once again endangered the lives of his employees by locking the factory doors. He was simply fined $20.
That same year, the Department of Labor was established and began tracking work-related injuries and deaths. A few decades later, the Bureau of Labor Standards was established to promote health and safety for working men and women. When the Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA) was finally signed into law in 1970, it established the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Over the years, the Administration has implemented safety measures and standards that have protected tens of millions of workers.
Even after the formation OSHA there have been deliberate efforts by industry and businesses to eliminate or reduce workplace protections. Organized labor has continued to fight to protect the safety and health of workers.
We owe so much to the labor movement. Yet, there is an indifference, even hostility, today towards unions. Perhaps it is because so few Americans belong to them. Perhaps it is because of a concerted effort by business and industry to weaken and discredit them over the decades. Union participation is at an all-time low in America as they are simultaneously under political assault by conservatives who want to eliminate the ability for workers to organize.
Individuals, standing together for the common interests of workers, can successfully fight against oppression and greed; but in order for these efforts to be effective, we must stand together. Unions were and are the backbone of our labor movement. And we owe them our gratitude and support.