This Labor Day, As Unions Face Historic Attacks, It's Time to Stand Together and Fight for Jobs

If there was ever a year to think about the meaning of Labor Day, this would be it.

Organized labor has rocketed to the forefront of America's political consciousness, with conservative governors attacking the right to form a union, historic strikes, and a few unexpected victories along the way.

And while the right attacks unions and labor organizes to fight back, unemployment remains high, jobs tenuous, wages depressed and the economy slumping. No new jobs were created in August—that's right, none. The overall unemployment rate held steady, but the labor department also revised downward its jobs growth numbers for the previous two months, so the economy has actually been worse than we thought for most of the summer. Dean Baker also points out that the number of people underemployed, or “involuntarily working part-time jumped up by 430,000, to 8.8 million.”

Continued high unemployment leaves even workers who have jobs feeling desperate, and gives the bosses the upper hand to demand more work, lower wages, and givebacks from employees, while austerity politics has led to public sector layoffs across the country.

As Mike Konczal notes, “Average weekly earnings and average weekly hours both dropped slightly. We need these numbers to be taking off, not holding steady or declining. So the economy isn’t working even for those with a job.”

He continues:

“Meanwhile, the average duration of unemployment has dropped while the median has increased. It’s too early to tell, but that’s a troubling sign with weak job growth — it means that we are likely seeing more and more unemployed people simply dropping out of the labor force instead of finding a job. This will continue to make the unemployment rate a less important indicator than the employment-to-population ratio.”

The picture is desperate and it's not getting any better. Many Labor Day barbecues this year will be overshadowed by grim economic realities. Many people are experiencing the pressure of being out of work or living in fear that their jobs will evaporate, having to put in longer hours or take a job that pays less, or being forced to take cuts in pensions or health benefits.

There is Power in a Union

Yet, this year has been exciting as well. While the economic picture remains bad, working people thrilled to the sight of Wisconsin's public workers, teachers and progressives occupying the capitol building in protest at Governor Scott Walker's attempt to take away union's rights to collective bargaining. As firefighters marched in solidarity and national labor leaders and rock stars descended on the city, Americans saw a mass, spontaneous pro-labor action that reminded us all of the real power of collective action.

Matt Stoller wrote at the time:

“Striking just isn’t in the collective memory of the American public anymore. This kind of highly politicized hybrid political protest/strike walks like an Egyptian these days, which is why Egyptians were sending Wisconsinites pizza and Madison protesters were holding signs lauding teachers, workers, and the new Egyptian flag. In fact, Madison may represent a new kind of American labor model, the melding of old school unions, Howard Dean-style internet-based organizing, Anonymous-style serious pranking, and social media reporting on protests and policy. There’s an anti-bailout class-based fervor here as well, with a simmering anger at Wall Street as subtext. It’s headless and global, though there is leadership. The most powerful moment so far in the Wisconsin conflict didn’t come from the actions of a labor leader, but from a prank call by alt-weekly 'Buffalo Beast' editor Ian Murphy, who pretended to be billionaire American oligarch David Koch and had a frank 20 minute conversation with Governor Scott Walker. Murphy originally wanted to pose as Hosni Mubarak, but couldn’t pull off the accent.”

Closer to home, the protest spread from Madison to Ohio and Indiana, where Republican governors were attempting to enact similar bills.

Ultimately, mass protest didn't change the hearts of the state senators in Wisconsin, but recall elections put a couple of them out of jobs. It did change the minds of Indiana's Republicans, and Ohio's movement is gearing up for a statewide vote on their own anti-union bill. And labor victories have been happening all around the country—IKEA factories and H&M retail stores, Starbucks and freelance TV writers and producers, and of course, Verizon workers.

Don't Mourn, Organize!

The first Labor Day was September 5, 1882. It was celebrated by New York's Central Labor Union, a branch of the Knights of Labor, and became an official holiday in several states by 1887.

But that Labor Day was a compromise itself. President Grover Cleveland, after brutally crushing the Pullman strike, wanted to ingratiate himself once again with working people and chose the first Monday in September as the official labor day because May 1, the date that has become the international worker's day, was too loaded.

Paul Mason, in his book Live Working or Die Fighting, wrote:

For it is a fact, forgotten by many who demonstrate on the first of May but remembered by the oil workers of Basra, that May Day was invented in America in 1886. At the time it too was a country scarred by civil war with a workforce divided by color, craft and creed. But in the run-up to the first May Day American workers built a huge popular movement dedicated to healing the divide. In those years the small-town America that today's occupying troops call home was itself a battlefield in the class war.”

May 1 was too closely associated with Chicago's Haymarket Massacre, where a bomb was thrown at police from a gathering of workers. Police and demonstrators alike were killed in the ensuing shootout, but eight radical organizers were the ones tried and sentenced, five of them to death. (In 1893 the governor of Illinois pardoned the three survivors, declaring the whole trial a sham.)

Perhaps Cleveland's move to dissociate the workers' day from radicalism worked too well; now hardly anyone outside of the labor movement remembers that the day is anything but the last holiday of summer and the last day where it's acceptable to wear white.

But this year, as jobs are on everyone's mind, maybe that'll be different.

Which Side Are You On?

As the ongoing economic crisis and policies that favor the rich hollow out the middle class, working families in the US (and around the world) are remembering what solidarity looks like. We are slowly coming to realize that we have to stand together or continue to suffer at the hands of the top 1 percent.

Chris Hayes wrote:

“Solidarity in the political vocabulary of the American left became class solidarity, workers' solidarity, the banding together of laborers against bosses. But it possessed more than rhetorical resonance, it was also the foundation of the labor movement's most potent tool: the strike. Only if workers stuck together under incredible pressures--violent intimidation from Pinkerton thugs and national guardsmen with rifles--could a strike be successful. In the 1880s and 1890s, as members of the Knights of Labor struck across the country for an eight-hour day, its motto was: 'An injury to one is the concern of all.'”

And yet solidarity is a concept unfamiliar to many Americans, a word often misused. For too long, unions have been in decline in this country, and we've forgotten how labor fought for us. The drop off in union membership coincides with stagnation in wages, as business presses for ever-cheaper labor or packs up and moves jobs entirely out of the country, and politicians have been only too happy to enable them. We had a minimum wage, child labor laws, the eight-hour work day and the weekend, overtime pay, pensions, and health benefits not because benevolent bosses handed them over, but because union workers struck, fought and died for them. But since 1947, strikes have declined, union membership has declined, wages have declined, and we've forgotten how we got a middle class because we've been so busy clawing to remain part of it. 

Stoller argued, “People might only like unions when they see strikes, otherwise all they hear about is backroom negotiations. Perhaps effectively striking is actually the way to force people to ask questions about what kind of country they want to live in.”

Gallup's poll of Americans' views on labor unions found a strong rebound in labor support from a low point in 2009, but only 52 percent overall have a positive view of labor—78 percent of Democrats and only 26 percent of Republicans. While it's actually impressive, considering the concerted effort Republicans have made this year to wipe out labor's power entirely, that 26 percent of Republicans are pro-union, the polarization in the country reflects the polarization of our politics.

But many Democrats on the national level are unwilling to fight for unions the way unions traditionally have fought for Democrats. Union leaders many times have declared independence from the party, but it's not as if they have many other options.

Much is riding on the Obama administration's expected jobs plan, but there's little hope that a real job creation agenda is on the horizon; instead, we'll probably get some watered-down proposals as a “compromise” with the horrific GOP jobs agenda.

We're not going to be able to count on politicians, that much is clear. Instead, we're going to need a mass movement, calling for accountability from Wall Street, tax increases on those who have profited off the squeeze felt by the rest of the country, and real job creation. And that movement is being led by organized labor and its supporters.

Whether it's 1.3 million people signing a petition for a “Citizen's Veto” of Governor John Kasich's anti-union law in Ohio, thousands of nurses rallying at 61 different congressional offices just last week, 45,000 Verizon workers striking to keep the benefits they've earned, the long fight of locked out steelworkers for decent benefits at a uranium enrichment plant, or the mass protests in Madison that inspired progressives around the country and led to historic recall elections, labor has been leading the fight this year to create an economy that works for all of us.

It's time for America to remember what the labor movement gave it; time, while we're barbecuing and kissing summer goodbye, to gear up for the fight of our lives. A fight for all of our lives—for decent jobs and living wages, for time to spend with our families that isn't spent worrying about how we're going to pay the bills. It's a fight that started a long time ago, and we've grown so accustomed to what it won for us that we only realize those winnings when they're being taken away from us.

We might need new tactics, but we have new tools as well. And we have an American public that's waking up to the fact that big business doesn't have our best interests at heart.

It's a fight we can win, if we work together.

Which side are you on?


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