Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor Day

“The good news this Labor Day: Jobs are returning. The bad news this Labor Day: Most of them pay lousy wages and low if non-existent benefits.” -Robert Reich, Former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton

Labor Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the first Monday in September, that celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers. It was first nationally recognized in 1894 to placate unionists following the Pullman Strike. With the decline in union membership, the holiday is generally viewed as a time for barbeques and the end of summer vacations. -Wikipedia

Labor unions are legally recognized as representatives of workers in many industries in the United States. Their activity today centers on collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions for their membership, and on representing their members in disputes with management over violations of contract provisions. Larger unions also typically engage in lobbying activities and electioneering at the state and federal level. -Wikipedia

   You see that first picture above? The one that says “Labor Day,” with the four flags. It looks pretty patriotic doesn’t it?
   You can even find pictures of naked ladies with the American flag strategically draped over them denoting that Labor Day is a very American and an important holiday, although one has to wonder exactly what kind of labor they’re advocating for.
   Don’t you believe it. Most politicians wouldn’t mind seeing labor unions go the way of the dinosaurs, including those that live in the White House. Republicans traditionally resent labor unions and do what they can to curb their influence. The right wing media, what some like to call the Republican Noise Machine, villainize unions and their members as parasites upon society, and unfortunately those who listen to their dribble, having no minds of their own, tend to carry on and live with that idea as if it were their own, and resent those being represented by labor, who might make a decent living and enjoy pensions and health benefits, as overpaid and unnecessary burdens placed upon the rest of the country.
   Unless of course they happen to be members of unions themselves.
   Democrats are traditionally seen as pro-union, pro-labor, and have indeed benefited by receiving major campaign contributions from said unions as a result, which is another reason the Republicans hate them... unions that is (they hate Democrats too).
   I was a member of a union at one time. The Communication Workers of America,  representing about 550,000 members in both the private and public sectors. I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure to it, and my pay was hourly and not expansive, and I don’t recall how much the dues were, but it did help me by making it difficult for AT&T (I was working as a long distance operator at the time. Hey, guess what, most long distance operators have been replaced these days by machines... how wonderful... for the machines) management to fire me when I eventually relapsed on several occasions and was absent from work for extended periods of time. And my health benefits, which the union promoted and protected, allowed me to enter some nice hospital recovery programs I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford.
   Being in that union was also psychologically beneficial, knowing I had a whole bunch of people whose only job it was to look out for my interests. I had worked too many jobs where that wasn’t the case, and the boss could fire me at their whim, for any reason, or none at all.
   Unions tend to even out the power structure of the working place.
   Lately, as the second paragraph above suggests, unions have been in decline in this country. “With the decline in union membership, the holiday is generally viewed as a time for barbeques and the end of summer vacations.” Wow, what a sad declaration. A day set aside to celebrate the average worker's contribution to the country to one that designates it’s a good time to cook some hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill, or maybe get that vacation to Ogallala, Nebraska in before autumn comes and the falling leaves begin to blanket the roads.
   Labor unions and the laborers that make them up originally proposed the idea of a national holiday devoted to labor. A machinist, Matthew Maguire, while serving as secretary of the CLU (Central Labor Union) of New York, proposed the idea in 1882, way before my time... or even yours (others say it was Peter J. McGuire of the AFL (American Federation of Labor) that same year, after attending a “labor festival” in Canada. I have no idea who was actually first, so we’ll let the two duke it out amongst themselves). However, it was the states who took up the idea way before the federal government got on board.  The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21st, 1887. During the next year four more, the states Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York created a Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By 1894, 30 states had adopted the holiday.
   And that was the year that Congress passed legislation that made Labor Day a national holiday, 1894, and the President at the time, one Grover Cleveland (no relation to the city. He is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms (1885–1889 and 1893–1897)), who was definitely pro-business. A Democrat, as a matter of fact a Bourbon Democrat (a Democrat who only drinks whiskey made of a grain mix of at least 51% corn), who opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, inflation, imperialism and subsidies to business, farmers or veterans. Today’s Tea Baggers would have loved him (although when a “Railroad Bubble” burst at the beginning of his second term, causing a national depression he was unable to alleviate, allowed the Republicans to dominate the government which ironically ushered in the “Progressive Era,” a period of social activism and political reform that flourished until the 1920s).
   Grover signed Labor Day into law more than likely as a political sop to the existing labor organizations and unions due to his intervention in the Pullman Strike (second picture above), in which thousands of United States Marshals and some 12,000 United States Army troops intervened in a strike by workers of  the Pullman Palace Car Company, which made railroad cars, causing the death of 30 strikers,  and wounding 57 others. He signed it into law just six days after the strike ended.
   In 1987 President Cleveland opted to celebrate the new national holiday in September, as the unions favored, rather than on May 1st, which was synonymous with, or linked to, International Workers' Day, which celebrated labor forces internationally, but was also linked with the nascent Communist, Syndicalist and Anarchist movements of the day.
   For a time unions flourished and fought for the rights of all workers, whether unionized or not.
   In 1938, in the midst of the “Great Depression,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law, which introduced a maximum 44-hour seven-day workweek (the United States Adamson Act in 1916 established an eight-hour day, with additional pay for overtime, for railroad workers. This was the first federal law that regulated the hours of workers in private companies. The United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Act in Wilson v. New, 243 U.S. 332 (1917). The Fair Labor Standards Act, as enacted applied to industries whose combined employment represented about twenty percent of the U.S. labor force. In those industries, it set the maximum workweek at 40 hours, but provided that employees working beyond 40 hours a week would receive additional overtime bonus salaries), established a national minimum wage, guaranteed "time-and-a-half" for overtime in certain jobs, and prohibited most employment of minors in "oppressive child labor,"  all in the face of considerable opposition and criticism from large business interests.
   Despite projections to the contrary, the Sun still shines, the world still exists, and the country somehow survived.
   This is one reason today’s right wing, and modern conservatives hate FDR and everything he stood for (Rush Limbaugh: "Roosevelt is dead. His policies may live on, but we're in the process of doing something about that as well."), and wish to repeal all of his legislative efforts (as Gomer Pyle would calmly exclaim, “Surprise, surprise!” The House Republicans have passed a bill that would end the 40-hour work week (it would be nice if we could get Congress to actually work 40 hours a week), dismantling an important component of the Federal Labor Standards Act, which made into law would hurt middle-class families across the country. Sponsored by Rep. Martha Roby (AL), the dubiously-titled “Working Families Flexibility Act” (H.R. 1406) would remove the requirement that employers pay a cash premium for overtime work and instead allow them to offer employees compensatory time off. The effect would be a Federal Labor Standards Act that is undermined of its only incentive against excessive hours and a cheaper way for employers to demand mandatory overtime. Eileen Appelbaum, a senior economist with the Center for Economic Policy and Research, says the bill’s major effect would be to hurt workers, “likely increasing overtime hours for those who don’t want them and cutting pay for those who do.” The Bill was passed in the House May 08, 2013, and sent to the Senate where it will more than likely die and excruciating and ignoble death. Repealing Child Labor Laws are also on the Republican agenda).
   So what’s been going on with unions lately? You may have heard or seen something on the television machine concerning workers at, oh let’s say Walmart, and fast food franchises. We’ll discuss this next time.

To be continued

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