A Labor Day Story
Aug 29 2000 6:39 PM EST
WE DON'T HAVE to work 40 hours next week because millions of our forebears put it all on the line, and that line was something called the 40-hour work week. And that was the start of a movement that produced Labor Day.
Our labor force is by no means exclusively union labor. It's not even mostly union labor. But we wouldn't have the 40-hour week, we wouldn't have state and federal
minimum wages, and we wouldn't have most of our fringe benefits if it weren't for
organized labor. And the pressures the movement brought to bear on employers and government.
The word union no longer seems to inflame the populace these days, either for or against. Many working men and women are just plain indifferent to unions. They'll take Monday as a national holiday because they think they deserve it . . . that they
worked for it.
They don't know about, could care less about, events known as the Haymarket Riot or
Everett Massacre. They never heard of Eugene Debs or Joe Hill or the Pullman Strike and, besides, what's any of that got to do with a national holiday that most see simply as the secular end of summer?
Raise a flag to celebrate what? Pensions and 401K plans and unemployment insurance and Social Security and sick pay and paid vacations all were put into the American fabric of life by beneficent employers concerned about worker welfare and happiness,
My father was anti-union most of his working life, a proud, independent-minded man who figured he could cut his own deals and carry his own weight. And he got screwed by an employer who had promised him a golden-rocking-chair job. Ironically, that employer sold to another who already was unionized, and my father managed to work long enough to earn a meager pension.
A union saved my full-time summer job when I was working in a Chicago cemetery to put myself through college. The cemetery owner had fired me for accidentally chipping a tombstone and ordered me to clean my machinery and leave. Less than an
hour later, the union steward told him they would shut down his cemetery and he could dig his own grave -- literally and figuratively. And I was back at work.
I'm not saying that unions are the best thing since sliced bread. Much of what has given organized labor a black eye were things I saw every working day (while under a Newspaper Guild contract) as the last full-time labor writer for the old Chicago
Daily News. Chicago was one helluva labor town, and whatever the Teamsters or the United Auto Workers or United Steel Workers of America did affected millions of workers and citizens.
One of the more colorful Teamsters union staffers I got to know, even to like personally, was at the time under federal indictment. Seems he had a habit of carrying
and displaying a revolver in his waistband when he went out to organize potential
members and businesses. I got bumped around and thrown out of Teamsters contract vote meetings and I was threatened by Steelworkers union goons for talking to union insurgents. But meeting guys like Eddie Sadlowski, who challenged a union slate hand-picked by I.W. Abel's machine, made me realize that most unions have honest, hardworking members as well as leaders.
I spent time in the coal fields of southern Illinois, where the United Mine Workers felt like they pretty much owned the land they worked beneath because their blood
spilled in strikes had seeped deep into that land. John L. Lewis wasn't exactly a saint,
but some of the men who followed him brought women with them -- into the mines as well as union positions.
I've walked newspaper strike picket lines with union brothers and sisters who managed to survive yearlong strikes. Not too many years ago, the union representing this newspaper's rank-and-file staff opened a strike headquarters in downtown Seattle
when our own contract talks went down to, and past, the wire.
And while I have a good job, I don't imagine for a minute that the pay scale and the benefits were meted out by all the management folks here and back East because they thought we deserved that and more. We had to go to the wall with them. I don't
know if any of us could have stuck with a strike machine like the Boeing engineers did more recently.
And I'm ashamed to tell you what we don't have in the way of pension benefits. A union plumber friend of mine stands to draw more than triple the amount of my
pension benefit. Which doesn't say a whole lot for my own union's negotiating priorities over the years. But what I do have was won by hard bargaining done primarily by my working brothers and sisters across the table from both management and their hired guns.
And your own benefits and pay are at a given level because either directly or indirectly, a union contract set a scale that became something of a standard in your
industry. It's sort of like so-called climbing tower cranes on high-rise construction sites, where the crane goes higher as more sections are put in from the bottom.
Other benefits have been won by state and national governmental agencies enforcing labor laws and equal-opportunity laws. And still others have been won by court action.
The current crop of political candidates can promise us the moon, or a slice of it. But only working people can earn it, whether or not they pay union dues. And working people and their retired colleagues have earned the right to hold those politicians to their promises.
And they have the right to expect the same delivery on promises from their union leaders who live off the per capita payments diverted from take-home paychecks.
We are in the midst of what our leaders tell us is an unprecedented period of prosperity, when even some rank-and-file workers earn stock options. But next
Monday would be a good time for us all to take stock in what got us this far, what put
the car in the driveway and the kids in college and food in the refrigerator.
The workers who put their jobs and their lives on the line more than 100 years ago did it for something we all take for granted: the 40-hour work week. They paid for this holiday the old-fashioned way: They earned it.