Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
The contributions to the strength and vitality of our country made by workers were made through a collective voice, commonly called a labor union. Simply put, a labor union represents the collective voice of workers, the same as the collective voice of business is the chamber of commerce, or the collective voice of physicians is the American Medical Association. When people band together in a collective endeavor, they are able to push for positive change.
The celebration of the American labor movement on labor day reminds us that the collective voice of workers (labor unions) established the 40 hour work week, the eight hour day, the abolishment of child labor, minimum wage standards, paid vacation, paid health insurance, paid holidays, the weekend, and the ability to enjoy senior years with a minimum guarantee of wages.
These gains for workers, who are an important component in the capitalistic system, were accomplished through a collective bargaining system. Workers declare that the right to collective bargaining in the workplace is a human right — just as fundamental as the right to free speech or the right to vote.
Three quarters of a century ago, our country passed labor laws that gave every worker the right to organize a union in their workplace to negotiate wages and working conditions with their employers.
When the largest percentage of private sector workers were in unions in the 1950’s, the economy grew and the gap between high and low income Americans dramatically dropped in what economist Paul Krugman calls the “Great Compression.”
The reason collective bargaining is so fundamental should be obvious. Markets are good at allocating many resources in an economy. But left to their own devices they do a terrible job distributing the fruits of production among the people who create products and services.
Economic history shows irrefutably that without collective bargaining, the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer. Unless workers have the right to bargain as a group over wages and working conditions, employers have every incentive to hire workers who will work for the lowest possible wage in the worst possible conditions. And in a globalized economy with literally billions of increasingly skilled workers in developing countries, there is always someone who is willing to do the same job for less.
In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 union members had salaries that were — on the average — 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts.
The only way to protect middle class incomes in the United States is to protect the precious right of collective bargaining and to extend it to most Americans. In fact, we would all be much better off if every worker in every place of employment could exercise their right to collective bargaining — the same way we are all better off when everyone has the right to vote.
Labor unions have raised wages, shortened hours and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the work place. Unions have done much for humanity through their desire for decency, fairness and honesty in the workplace.
Every advance in this half-century — Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another — came with the support and leadership of American Labor. Labor believes that hard work should be properly rewarded.
Labor unions continue to fight for the rights of the worker by negotiating a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work; equality in pay for the same job without regard to race or gender, the right to share in the wealth since they are a major component in the creation of those profits, and further, to maintain the “rights” previously won.
“Working people want a labor movement strong enough to help return balance to our economy, fairness to our tax system, security to our families and moral and economic standing to our nation,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, on May 20, 2011.
So, on this Labor Day, let us celebrate the American worker and their organization’s (labor union) contribution to this wonderful country, and let us continue to be thankful to our creator for the gift of life.
— John C. Hancock of Hamlet is an arbitrator/mediator. He is a retired worker from the railroad industry and from a railroad union.