I don’t have many distinct memories from Labor Day weekends. Over the years, Labor Day has been a time for cookouts, fantasy football drafts or catching up on sleep.
Last year, though, I did something different Labor Day weekend. I felt compelled, as a local labor leader, to get involved with the Issue 2 efforts, so I went canvassing with organizers from the We Are Ohio coalition.
As I walked through Sylvania neighborhoods that afternoon, I was informing people about the importance of collective bargaining with the simple message that Issue 2/Senate Bill 5 was “unfair, unsafe and hurts us all.”
I didn’t realize it then, but that Labor Day canvassing was a significant event, not just because it started me on the path to political activism, but because it was the epitome of what Labor Day is really all about.
Labor Day is all about celebrating American workers and their accomplishments, and many of their accomplishments occurred in an environment shaped by labor unions. Since the first Labor Day in 1882 and in the 130 years since, unions have strived to create a workplace culture in this country that is “fair, safe and beneficial to all of us.”
It’s easy to forget that 130 years ago, the workplace was not fair and safe, and did not benefit all Americans. Average people had to organize, stand up and make great sacrifices in order to make that happen. But as educators we have a responsibility to remind people, including our students, of the history of labor in America.
One of the best examples to use is the McKees Rock strike of 1909. Many immigrants worked for the Pressed Steel Car Company under incredibly harsh conditions for very low pay because, at that time, there was no set scale or measure for wages and no safety regulations. The Pittsburgh Leader reported that there was an average of one death a day at the worksite. When a person was severely injured or killed, “some foreman or other petty ‘boss’ pushes the bleeding body aside with his foot to make room for another living man, that no time be lost in the turning out of pressed steel cars. The new man often works for some minutes over the dead body until a labor gang takes it away.” When 40 workers protested, they were fired. So the workers went on strike and workers in other industries joined them. They eventually prevailed, not only with increased wages, but also with a voice for immigrant workers.
People also forget that organizing was no small feat. It took strength and courage. Sometimes workers and their family members paid the ultimate price. When miners in Ludlow Colorado went on strike in 1914, they were evicted from their houses. So the miners set up a cluster of tents where they lived with their families. On Easter night in 1914, the National Guard and men hired by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, poured oil on the tents and set them on fire. When miners and their family members tried to escape, the National Guard shot them.
Today, most people are unaware of the McKees Rock strike or the tragedy in Ludlow or any of the countless other battles that workers fought that have led to decent wages and working conditions for Americans. They take for granted the 40-hour workweek. They take for granted weekends. They take for granted that they don’t have to worry about getting severely maimed or killed due to unsafe working conditions.
I don’t take those things for granted. I know what my profession would be like without a union advocating for me. I don’t need to look very far. I have friends who are working at non-union charter schools for low wages in classrooms where they have no voice in educating their students who remain silent because they fear they will lose their jobs. Last year, a friend working at a charter told me that the administration in his school decided, mid-year, to implement a new curriculum. A week before winter break, he and his co-workers were told that their break would be cut short for training on the new curriculum, regardless of whether they had made travel plans or not. Another friend told of her fears of failing students who had not successfully completed the material, because it could reduce the enrollment at the charter costing the company money and maybe cost this teacher her job.
This Labor Day, I will remember the struggles and sacrifices American workers have made over the years, as I walk with my colleagues in the AFL-CIO sponsored Labor Day parade. I will remember them as I canvas neighborhoods in support of political candidates who support organized labor and collective bargaining rights. I will remember them as I speak to groups about the proposed redistricting amendment, this years’ Issue 2 (“yes” not “no” this time).
It’s my hope that when people fire up their grills, gather for fantasy football drafts or hit the snooze bar on Monday, they too will remember the true meaning and purpose of Labor Day, the hard work of Americans over the years and all the good that unions do, for both unionized and non-unionized workers.