Labor Day. Time again for politicians and union adherents to praise organized labor. Time again for others to pontificate about the supposed decline and growing irrelevance of unions as they continue to lose members and continue to argue among themselves over the future direction of the labor movement.
Time again for most other people to ignore the Labor Day messages as we mark the end of summer with yet another three-day weekend.
The general public indifference is understandable. After all, less than 15 percent of the country's working people are in unions these days.
But even if you are not a union member — even if you do not approve of unions — consider this while you're enjoying the long Labor Day holiday: There wouldn't be any three-day weekends if it wasn't for those unions. None.
If unions hadn't done what they did — and continue to do — it's highly unlikely that anyone outside the executive ranks would be getting a paid holiday on Labor Day, or on any other day. (Or even, of course, that there would be such a holiday as Labor Day.)
Nor is it likely that those who are required to work on such holidays would be getting the pay of two to three times their regular rate that unions have made the standard for holiday work in most areas — or get premium pay for any other work, at any other time.
Holidays meant very little to most working people in the days before unions became effective. They meant only an unwelcome day off and loss of a day's pay or, at best, a day of work at regular wages.
Those were the days when unions still were struggling primarily for nothing more than legal recognition. It wasn't until World War II that unions were able to go beyond the fundamentals and make negotiation of paid holidays a common practice, a concession employers made in lieu of the pay raises federal wage controls prohibited during the war.
The paid vacations so many working people took as usual this summer also were very rare until unions demanded and won them. So were employer-financed pensions and medical care and other fringe benefits, health and safety standards, job security and other things now commonly granted most workers, union and non-union alike.
Thus without unions, we should not forget, there would be no paid holidays for most people, no premium or overtime pay, no paid vacations, few fringe benefits and little protection against job-related hazards and arbitrary dismissal.
Without unions, as a matter of fact, the standard work day might very well still be 10 to 12 hours, the standard work week six to seven days, and working people would have few of the rights so many now take for granted. That includes the overriding right of having a genuine voice in determining their pay and working conditions.
You doubt it? Consider the remembrances of Mark Hawkins, who worked in the warehouses along San Francisco's busy waterfront in the 1930s, before the coming of effective unionization.
Hawkins remembered men wrestling with crates, bundles, cartons, merchandise in all sizes, shapes and weights, 10 hours a day, often every day of the week, for a mere $60 a month. They worked as many hours on as many days as the boss demanded, at whatever pay he offered, lest they be replaced by others clamoring for jobs in those dark days of the Great Depression.
Hawkins especially remembered a fellow worker who failed to raise his hand one Saturday when the boss made his usual Saturday afternoon request for "volunteers" to work Sunday. The reluctant warehouseman pleaded that his wife, undergoing a complicated pregnancy, was seriously ill and would need him at home to comfort her.
"Okay," said the boss — "but don't you think she'll feel even worse if you have to tell her you don't have a job anymore?"
The man worked that Sunday. When he got home, his wife was dead.
Few of today's employers would even consider acting in such a manner, given the firm standing gained for all workers by the country's now solidly entrenched unions. That alone is more than enough reason to honor organized labor on the holiday it won for us all.
Dick Meister has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, columnist and author. Visit his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.
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