This past Labor Day should give us pause to consider its real meaning. More than a 3-day weekend, the unofficial end of summer and a shopping holiday, it’s a celebration of labor – the hard-working men and women who built this nation. In many ways, it also represent the end of our second civil war.
The war began in the late 1800’s when wealthy industrialists discovered they could exploit the flood of new immigrants by forcing them to work long hours in dangerous conditions, all the while paying them barely subsistence wages. The battlefields were in Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Reading, San Francisco, and on Blair Mountain, West Virginia. The combatants were ordinary working people demanding living wages and safe working conditions who were often attacked by armies of security companies, law enforcement…even veterans from the American Legion.
The battles raged for decades until workers finally won the right to organize and negotiate with their employers. This collective bargaining, as it came to be called, eventually brought us the 5-day, 40-hour work week. It brought us paid holidays, paid sick leave, workers’ compensation insurance, and retirement benefits. Collective bargaining ended the practice of forcing men, women and children to work in dimly-lit, poorly-ventilated sweat shops. It ended company stores which were used to accumulate workers’ debt and hold workers captive from cradle to grave.
Even if you have never joined a labor union, you benefit from the efforts of those brave enough to fight the establishment.
Unfortunately, the exploitation only ended in the United States and other advanced nations. The descendants of the industrialists – the CEOs and directors of large, multi-national corporations – merely exported the exploitation elsewhere…to countries lacking collective bargaining. They simply moved their factories to China, to Bangladesh, to India, to Pakistan, to Indonesia, to Malaysia, to Viet Name and elsewhere. In those countries which have few government regulations and no labor unions, they are free to force workers to slave away in sweat shops, often paid by the piece and made to work seven days a week.
Of course, this is no longer called exploitation. It is now called globalization. And, whether or not we care to admit it, we all participate in this exploitation. US corporations get their products made at lower cost and American consumers benefit from lower prices. Corporate shareholders see dividends and higher profits. And while the corporations despoil the land, air and water of other countries, we can breathe more easily because the pollution is out of our sight and, therefore, out of our minds.
So what can you do to stop the exploitation? You can vow to purchase products that are humanely made and sustainably grown. You can divest your investment portfolio of the corporations that are the worst offenders. You can write letters to the leaders of those companies. You can boycott their products. And we can end the current war on collective bargaining began when Ronald Reagan, a former union leader himself, betrayed PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union. You can support collective bargaining for teachers, first responders and government workers. And you can demand that your company have a representative of its workers on the Board of Directors as is the case in many European companies.
Then, and only then, will we be able to truly celebrate Labor Day.