Anti-union sentiment is in the air these days as the media reports tales of high pensions for union workers and undue pressure by unions on the government. If you read the Republican Platform passed by the convention in Tampa a few days ago, you can read that “We call for repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, which costs the taxpayers billions of dollars annually in artificially high wages on government projects. We support the right of States to enact Right-to-Work laws and encourage them to do so to promote greater economic liberty.” Few people know what is in the Davis-Bacon Act, which was passed in 1931. It provides that people working on government projects be paid no less than the locally prevailing wages and benefits paid on similar projects. That doesn’t sound too unreasonable—to ask that people building our courthouses, libraries and schools don’t have to put up with below-market wages, does it? It was signed into law by Republican President Herbert Hoover, but Republicans have been trying to repeal the act for more than fifty years and now they are trying again.
Why are so many Americans anti-labor these days? Probably because they forget what life was like in a pre-union world. At least one day a year, on Labor Day, we ought to try to remember those days and honor the people who changed the rules. Clothing workers are a good example of why unions were needed. It was an industry dominated by women, most of them immigrant women. Some of them worked in small factories, others took the work home. Jacob Riis had described the conditions during the 1890s. In How the Other Half Lives he wrote: “From every door multitudes of tired men and women pour forth for half-hour’s rest in the open air before sleep closes the eyes weary with incessant working.” Factories were not much better than working at home. There were no limitation on working hours, safety rules were nonexistent, workers were hired and laid off erratically as demand rose and fell. There was no health insurance and no unemployment benefits. If your family couldn’t help you out, you were just out of luck.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911
finally awakened many people to the dangers of unregulated factory work. Pictures like this documented the horror of young women trapped into an unsafe factory. The doors to the fire escapes had been locked to keep workers from stealing fabric or sneaking outside for a break. Gradually most of the public woke up to the fact that regulations were needed to keep employers from exploiting workers. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) grew and through negotiation and strikes finally forged agreements that made many people’s lives better.
Women like Rose Pesotta traveled across the country to organize clothing workers. She went to Los Angeles where the clothing industry workers were mostly Mexican immigrants. Rose was told that Mexican women would never join a union, but she disagreed. She started broadcasting on the local Spanish-language radio station and found a willing audience. As she wrote in her memoir Bread upon the Waters, “Gradually the Mexicans in the dress factories came to our union headquarters, asking questions timidly but eagerly. Some employers, learning of signed membership cards, scoffed: “They won’t stick.” Others were plainly worried. Women not yet in our ranks came with the disquieting news that their boss had threatened to report them to the immigration authorities and have them “sent back” if they joined our union. We promised that our attorneys would fight any such underhanded move.” Gradually the workers were won over, they agreed to strike and eventually the ILGWU was able to ensure them better working conditions through the union.
The ILGWU revolutionized the lives of millions of women across the country, and even though it gradually lost members and strength as the century went on, it remains a shining example of what Americans can do when they work together. The same can be said of other unions which made America a country recognized across the world as a land of promise. The conditions brought about by union workers made the late twentieth century a prosperous time for almost all working families. Today on Labor Day let’s pay tribute to the people who fought to give us unions. They are not always perfect, and sometimes their demands can’t be met, but they have been a blessing for the country. Let’s work with them and not try to wipe them out.