COMMENTARY: Honoring US labor movement


Too often, we Americans see Labor Day as the end-of-the-summer finale and forget its origins. We have that unfortunate tendency with many of our holidays — to enjoy their festiveness, and not recall or honor why they came into existence.

Labor Day originated in the union movement and eventually became a federal holiday in 1894 to pay respect to working people, who have struggled throughout our country’s history, and continue to struggle, to make our democracy vibrant and our society strong.

It is also a day to recognize the impact of the labor movement on our society. Among other things, unions (not companies) brought us the five-day work week, overtime pay, minimum wage, workplace safeguards, paid vacations, sick leave, employer-provided health insurance and other protections written into law.

Nor do most Americans realize how hard, long and even bloody the struggle was; how many people went to jail, lost their jobs, and even died. Or how the justice of the movement’s goals attracted support from many of the nation’s religious communities.

Ironically now, the labor movement has suffered from its successes. Part of the reason membership is at a low level is that workers do not feel the same intense need to organize as they did when protections and benefits were not written into law or part and parcel of the American working culture, as they are today.

There are still millions of workers, however — especially in the construction, agriculture and service industries — who still suffer daily exploitation and are among the lowest paid and least protected.

Also, these days, we are seeing concerted efforts by state and federal governments to cut back the progress workers have made. Not only are we witnessing a devaluation of workers, but a group of hardcore pundits and politicians are intent on scapegoating collective bargaining rights for educators, police, firefighters and other public employees. They blame these public servants and workers generally for not balancing the economy on their backs, rather than asking companies with massive profits and tax breaks to pay their fair share.

A battle rages between two competing views of society. One view is that society exists for the individual (“What can I get out of it? Why should I pay school taxes if I don’t have children in school?”). The other is a communitarian view: That democracy functions best as a community and we all should contribute appropriately to make it better for everyone.

We know from history that our society flourishes best when we emphasize community, not only in the present time but for our grandchildren and the generations that follow us. But “what’s in it for me” seems to have overpowered “what’s good for all of us.”

Many religious communities are again beginning to remind us of the growing inequities suffered by workers and their loss of dignity and respect. For a county where a sizeable percentage of the population claim to be Christians, we are remarkably short on seeing ourselves as a mutually supportive community. This is not a partisan issue, but justice at its core.

This is also the lesson we learn from the labor movement. Our country survives best when we live as a community, watching out for each other, and not as a conglomerate of rugged individualists. American democracy has taught us that community life helps us develop better as persons than if we go it on our own.

This Labor Day, we should reflect on these matters, and then commit ourselves to redirect our democracy to greater justice. And let our legislators know, loudly and clearly.