Labor Day was meant to honor the American labor movement, but do we do that on the holiday or at any other time? Aren’t we much more likely to denigrate the laboring class or organized labor? How often do you praise unions? When you pass a highway road crew, do you spot workers seemingly idling and think, “Working hard or hardly working?”
That was often my reaction at least until I got a job in a cemetery in the summer after I graduated from high school. My first assignment was to rake a grassy plot that had been recently cut. I thought that this would be easy, even pleasurable. I was young and fit, and I loved the smell of freshly mown grass. But after quarter hour my arms were sore. I took a few minutes break. After another fifteen minutes, my shoulders started to burn. I took another break. After a total of ninety minutes, every part of my body seemed jelly-like. How could all those people do something like this for eight hours day after day? Luckily, a regularly scheduled coffee break at nine interceded, and I was given a new assignment at its conclusion.
During that summer, I worked alongside the full-time employees, and I saw how hard they worked and how often they took pride in what they accomplished. I had a new-found respect for those who labored. This education continued in the summers of my college years when I worked in a factory. I learned how hard it was to do repetitive tasks on my feet for a workday, but again I learned that the workers cared about the product. If I did not assemble something correctly or made some other mistake, I was quickly informed on how to do the task properly. These were boom times, and we worked nine-and-a-half hour days during the week and a half-day on Saturdays. The full-time workers did not complain but were happy for the extra money that they could make. I bitched a lot, got regularly drunk in what was left of the evening after scarfing down a meal, and then dragged myself out of bed at 5:45 A.M. for the start of another nine-and-a-half hours.
My grandfather was the member of a union. So were my fellow factory workers. (As a summer worker, I was not asked to join.) Since I barely spoke with my grandfather, I never heard from him what he thought of his union, but that he joined the strike and stayed out for its duration, does indicate something. Mostly I heard about the union from my grandfather’s son, and this talk was not so much about the union and wages, but about the union and working conditions. My father told me stories about how management would order workers to do unnecessarily dangerous things that the union would prevent and that the union forced the company to reduce the risks of silicosis, measures that would not have occurred without union bargaining and pressures.
I did hear the union workers at the factory talk about their union. This came up frequently at the lunch break and before and after work (I carpooled with workers to get to the factory a few miles out of town) because bargaining was going on with a strike date looming in the middle of summer. (The potential strike presented an existential dilemma for me. My family supported union causes, and I did know Solidarity Forever. On the other hand, I was dating one of the management’s daughters. I was saved from resolving the conflict between principles and sex when at the last minute the company and the union signed a new contract. Years later, I was represented by a union when I was an attorney for the New York City Legal Aid Society, and strikes again posed dilemmas for me, but that is a story for another time.)
The factory workers were not dissatisfied with their working conditions, but they saw the union as essential for getting fair wages. Without the collective action of a union, they knew that they would get paid less and simply have no alternative but to accept whatever the company offered to pay them. They knew that if the company were to make the choice of more money for the owners and higher wages for the worker, the result would not be more money in their paychecks.
Those days, however, are now distant. Unions have much less authority than they did back then and in other countries now. Unions have been denigrated since the beginning of the organized labor movement, but that denigration took especial hold over the last forty or fifty years. How often have you heard something positive about unions? On the other hand, you probably did hear about featherbedding and union corruption. Of course, many unions have had a corruption problem, but if you pay the least little attention, you know that many corporations have had and continue to have corruption issues and the equivalent of management featherbedding in the form of lavish pay and perks. Corporate corruption, however, does not mean we think that all corporations are bad for the country. In contrast, a corrupt union bleeds over to other unions. A corrupt union tends to make us think that unionization is generally a bad thing.
(concluded on Labor Day)