Now That Your Labor Movement Won Three Day Weekend Is Over, See What Else You Should Thank Unions For

We've always had labor in this country: free laborers, indentured servants and slave labor. But it wasn't until 1894, that Congress made the first Monday in September the official Labor Day holiday. Although now, in most communities, it's mainly just another day off — or excuse to shop the sales — people used to take Labor Day pretty seriously and with good reason.

The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day should take was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday — a street parade to exhibit to the public "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. 

Just because we had a holiday the celebrates the contributions of workers didn't mean that workers were free to organize and advocate for their rights. The right to unionize was a battle fought in the courts and in the streets. It was a cause that many men and women gave their lives to — literally. 

  • The Battle of Blair Mountain: In September, 1921, 10,000 West Virginia coal miners battled 3,000 police and strikebreakers (the "Logan Defenders"). The miners rose up against the strongarm tactics of the coal mine owners who fought bitterly against unionization using paid agents who spied on organizers and even murdered union supporters. The fighting ended when the President sent the U.S. Army to restore order. It was one of the largest civil uprisings in the country's history, and I bet you never heard about it in school.
  • Columbine Mine Massacre: On November 21, 1927, Colorado state militia and coal company guards fired on unarmed striking union workers, killing six and wounding dozens more.
  • Bisbee Deportation: 1300 striking mine workers, their families and union supporters were arresed in Bisbee, Arizona, and herded onto cattle cars. Sixteen hours later, they were dumped in the desert in New Mexico without food or water.  Coal company executives in Bisbee seized control of the telegraph and prevented Associated Press reports from filing news reports about the arrests and deportation until the train left Bisbee. They did this with the cooperation of the county sheriff. Even then, elected offiicals were swayed by money and power.

Union representation was at its height after WWII and propelled millions of workers into comfortable middle class lives.

Collective bargaining performed impressively after World War II, more than tripling weekly earnings in manufacturing between 1945 and 1970, gaining for union workers an unprecedented measure of security against old age, illness, and unemployment, and, through contractual protections, greatly strengthening their right to fair treatment at the workplace. 

Even though most workers weren't covered by union contracts, the benefits and protections they won rippled through the economy. Do you like having weekends off? Thank the labor movement. Do you like having a safe workplace, a pension and overtime pay? Thank the labor movement.

It's no accident that many middle class families are struggling now and falling behind. Although many don't realize it, their fortunes and future prospects rise and fall with the power of the labor movement. The balance of power has shifted, with corporations calling the shots in Washington and using buckets of Citizens United cash to buy influence — and Congressmen.

And the result is devastating for working families: 

So campers, there's not much for workers to celebrate this Labor Day. Until people realize what's at stake when they enter the voting booth, nothing will change.  We have a chance to make a difference this November.  

Vote like your life depends on it - because it does.

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