Honoring Labor Day

In my house, Labor Day was always the last free day before school started, but it started as a way to honor the working people–and the unions–of America, back in the day when unions meant something.
For that reason, I was drawn to a Labor Day post by Tom Guarriello at Truetalk Blog, who wrote:
“My parents were both union members. My mother was a seamstress. She started working in the first of a long series of small manufacturing “shops” when she was 14, and immediately joined the ILGWU. When she died a few months short of her 89th birthday, she was still receiving retirement benefit checks.

My father was a Teamster. But, an odd one. My dad worked a lot of different kinds of jobs, but for the last 25 or so years of his life he worked in the cosmetics business, manufacturing cold creams, toilet water and other products for Charles of the Ritz and Estee Lauder. Those plants were Teamster shops, and eventually my dad was elected shop steward.
(snip)
My mom finished the 8th grade; my dad, the 6th. They were the kinds of people Labor Day was established to commemorate: simple, hard-working.”

Here’s to all of us and the ways –good and bad–that work has changed in the past 50 years–and to everything we each contribute.

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  1. Jackson West says:

    My folks were both Teamsters, and being the internationalists that they are, Labor Day was considered a compromised holiday. “The real day for honoring labor is May Day,” they intoned every year. May Day was when my mom hummed the Internationale while making dinner, and my dad told me stories about walking the line and fighting with the corrupt mob thugs from his own union at UFW rallies.
    Still, a three day weekend camping on the Washington coast and boiling live dungeness crabs we’d bought from the fishermen in Westport wasn’t too shabby.

  2. Randy says:

    The reasons unions mean so little today are the same reasons any political institution loses influence. First is success. Unions succeeded in so many ways that businesses by battle-conditioned reflex most always operate fairly toward employees and provide benefits, all hard-won by unions – without the need for collective bargaining and labor actions. Second is the corruption of concentrations of large amounts of money. The great irony here is that we’re not talking about union dues. When it comes to dues, unions are like most households – living from paycheck to paycheck. The funds sure as hell aren’t concentrated for long. No, ironically, the corruption comes in two of the areas unions fought for hardest: pensions and PAC’s. Almost every instance of labor union corruption has to do with misuse of those pools of funds. The third and most important reason unions matter so much less now is the one that is truly identical to other political institutions: union leadership is an isolated elite who think that they know not only what is best for the rank-and-file, but they also THINK they know best how the rank-and-file should think and vote. Is it a coincidence that union leadership has become more and more leftist while the electorate as a whole has moved to the right? Is it coincidence that unions breaking away from the AFL-CIO are often doing so because of a desire for political independence? I’m not saying that unions should move to the right, or that they should disappear, not at all. They should just revert to the more genuinely democratic institutions they once were.
    Last point – when issues arise of the kind that once seemed to need the countervailing power base of a collective bargaining unit or the leverage of a strike to accomplish, I know of a great alternative, cheaper, faster, possibly more effective, and perfectly, perfectly democratic: a blog, a website for an employee group, and an electronic petition. And if it weren’t for the people who write and post here, I wouldn’t have learned that. So for Labor Day, if you don’t mind, I’ll salute YOU.

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