Labor Day is a day of celebration.  The celebration is sometimes not understood by the majority of people benefitting from the day off.  Labor Day is the recognition of organized labor in the United States.  That’s right conservatives, a national holiday for Unions.  So the question arises, why a holiday for labor, don’t they get off for all of the other holidays?

When the first “informal” Labor day was celebrated in the late 1800’s, there were no official holidays, there were not even official weekends.  The majority of corporate workers (admittedly not the majority of people as most people worked their own farms or small businesses) worked at the pleasure of the company.  If you were a coal worker, you lived in company housing, shopped at the company store and usually owed the company more at the end of the month than you paycheck was worth.  Then if you got hurt or killed, your family was thrown out to make room for a new worker.  There were equally deplorable conditions in the garment industry, transportation and others.

Labor unions started in Europe in the 1600’s to protect the integrity of specific trades.  You could not sell your services as a carpenter unless you were a recognized member of the carpenter’s union.  This ensured quality for the whole industry and ensured higher compensation for the members of the union.  In the United Sates and England, labor unions took on the abuses of industry during the industrial revolution and into the 20th century.  These abuses were real and dangerous, there was no Department of Labor or OSHA.  The government even sent out thugs to break up protests, including beatings and killings.  Most people today cannot claim that the union movement was not needed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For those of you who are not union members (called free loaders), you have a lot to celebrate as well.  Two day weekends, the 40 hour week, federal holiday, sick leave, vacation, and even disablity insurance are all the result of the labor movement.  There were and are companies that provided these benefits without the need for union or governmental pressure (to get and keep the best employees), but for the largest industries, there is no evidence that they would ever have changed the policies that resulted in the labor disputes of 100 years ago.

Now comes the question as to the necessity of unions today.  There is a strong effort today by the federal government to revitalize unions.  Union membership has been dropping over the last 30 years.  So of this is because the unions won.  The major grievances have been addressed.  New workers do not have the history to understand what was achieved and what can be lost.  But there is another driver.  After World War II, union leaders became separated for the union membership.  A myth arose that in order to negotiate with corporate leaders, union leaders had to be of equal compensation with staff and support.  Early union leaders were the guys willing to walk up to a line of armed thugs and tell them off, true works and true heroes.  Today’s leadership is just another layer of management between the worker and the corporate leaders.  This extra layer spend the money of the rank and file on things the ordinary worker does not understand.  So today, there are law suites against unions for using funds to lobby for legislation or bonus for leadership.

To answer the question posed above, unions are definitely still necessary.  We simply cannot depend on the government protecting our rights and ensuring proper treatment.  The government has been on the wrong side of the argument too many times (labor and civil rights are just tow examples) where force has been used to suppress legitimate complaints.  Are unions effective in their present form?  That question is up for debate.  When the federal government has to step in to assure membership, something is fundamentally wrong.  When the most significant issue being pushed by organized labor is “card check” is to remove the rights of union members (elimination of the secret ballot in union activities), things just do not seem right.

Enjoy this last hurray of summer.  Celebrate labor as one of the three pillars of what makes America great; Military strength, Agricultural independence, and Labor Union.  We owe our lives, our comfort and our livelihood to every other American we share this great nation with.

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Martin writes about writing in his weekly column Ramblings from Martin.

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