You Can’t Fool Me—Celebrating Labor Day

President Obama is celebrating this Labor Day by making a speech calling for a higher federal minimum wage for workers. There are plenty of voices proclaiming that a higher minimum wage will kill jobs, although there is no evidence that these laws do. The

Mother Jones leading a union march  in Colorado
Mother Jones leading a union march in Colorado
history of minimum wage laws is a checkered one. In 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt said in one of his radio “Fireside chats” “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry”. A wage of $11 a week seems laughable now, but the same voices have expressed the same sentiment year after year whenever the minimum wage levels have been raised.

Today is Labor Day and it is a time to honor the unions that have helped bring better wages and better conditions to workers across America. Remember the old Woody Guthrie song:

Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union.
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.

There are plenty of reasons today to stick to your union, that is, if you are lucky enough to have one. As we celebrate another Labor Day, I can’t resist reprinting a blog that I first wrote two years ago.

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 Shirt Waist 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

Picture of bodies from the Triangle factory fire.
Triangle Factory Fire 1911 (ILGWU photo)
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.

2 thoughts on “You Can’t Fool Me—Celebrating Labor Day

  1. Hear, hear!!!! It’s shocking how much anti-labor and anti-union sentiment has arisen in this country in recent years. This post is a powerful reminder of why we continue to NEED unions!

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