September 10, 2016
By Linda Gilleson
Butte, Montana – The first national Labor Day was in 1894. Many of us have forgotten the goal of the early Labor Day celebrations: “to demonstrate the strength and esprit de corps” of organized labor. In recent years I’ve come to celebrate the union movement, for all of its mistakes and failings, in a way I never did when I was younger.
I grew up in Kentucky simply understanding that organized labor was good for workers and good for “us all.” My mom was a teacher and belonged to a teacher’s union; my dad never had a unionized job nor the security or benefits or working conditions which unionized labor enjoyed. My mom’s employment was the career with benefits which kept all of us alive during my father’s long illness. In those days, my mom was able to retire at age 59 and live comfortably with my dad on her retirement and his marginal earnings. It was just simply understood in our household that, where labor was organized, workers prospered. My own first active union experience was as a member of the University Faculty Association at the University of Montana, and I found first-hand, at a very trying point in my career, how crucial the various assurances contained in a collective bargaining agreement are.
During the past few decades, union membership has declined greatly, 7 percent in the non-governmental sector. And a sad economy has developed, with stagnant or declining wages being the experience of most workers in America, and a sad political scene, with many working Americans feeling helpless in the face of power which increasingly regulated their lives at work and altered their lives at home drastically. Many Americans have come to work more hours and work numerous jobs in order to support themselves and their families. And those workers whose employment is insecure, without benefits and does not pay a living wage have increasingly dropped out of the ranks of the politically active in our country.
I spent time at the Missoula Area Central Labor Council fair booth talking to folks who want to know what unions are up to these days. (This year, I learned a marketable skill: how to inflate hydrogen-filled balloons!) Our large banner lists “37 things organized labor has given you,” including the 40-hour work week, weekends, honorable wages, health benefits, the end of child labor, safe working conditions. Sadly, many American workers no longer enjoy these advantages: they can’t work only 40 hours per week; they can’t “take off” on weekends; their wages no longer allow them to keep their families secure, and no benefits are attached to their insecure employment; non-unionized workplaces like mines present increasing threats to workers’ health and safety. Likewise, fewer workers benefit from the practice in civic participation which labor unions provide nor do they enjoy the training opportunities which unions used to make commonly available in the forms of apprenticeships. Most importantly, perhaps, they no longer have the right to bargain with their employers to improve their working conditions, compensation, and health benefits.
The struggle continues, and we all need to be in it together.
***Linda Gilleson is a retired professor of humanities.