United Auto Workers union members and their families rally near the General Motors Flint Assembly plant on Solidarity Sunday on October 13, 2019 in Flint, Michigan during the UAW strike of GM. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
On Labor Day, first designated as a national holiday in 1894, we commemorate the union movement, the demand for an eight hour work day, better working conditions, fair wages and an end to child labor.
Gender equality, racial equality, fair farm prices and farm worker rights are separate issues but all related to the struggle of the unions for a fair wage and decent working conditions.
Labor unions are not about the individual, they are about everyone, working together. If one is oppressed, all are oppressed. Historically, labor unions evolved and recognized the need to bring everyone into the struggle regardless of color or gender, because the struggle was about everyone.
But currently, only one in 10 American workers is a union member, down from nearly one in three workers during the 1950s. President Ronald Reagan’s firing of 12,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 could be considered the beginning of the war on organized labor.
Recently, after decades of declining union membership, a resurgent labor movement in the U.S. is demanding respect and fair wages. The “Striketober” movement that began in October of 2021, was an overdue response to the long hours and low wages workers were forced to accept during the COVID-19 pandemic — even as business profits increased and income inequality grew.
Workers, both union and non-union, realized that they did have power. In 2022 and 2023 the number of strikes and potential strikes has continued to grow. From baristas to Teamsters, teachers unions to Hollywood writers and actors, workers are demanding fairness and respect.
Generations after the early struggles of labor unions and decades after Ronald Reagan, corporations have done their best to de-unionize America. Exporting jobs, closing union factories and union-busting have taken their toll on wages and the economy in general.
Whether it’s exploitation by the robber barons of the nineteenth century, the segregationists of the Jim Crow South, the growers who exploit migrant farm laborers, the agribusiness interests that squeeze and impoverish small farmers, sexist discrimination against women in the workplace or the bigotry targeting the LGBTQ+ community, workers are constantly fighting oppression in an unequal society.
Labor unions, suffragists, feminists, civil rights advocates, small farmers and farm workers all struggled against the rich, the powerful and the corporate interests who intend to control the economy and maintain their position at the top of the hierarchy. The labor movement was, and still is, a reflection of society. Unions challenged the idea that power and money should belong only to the most privileged who gained their position by exploiting the masses.
Everyone owes a debt to laborers and union organizers. They put their lives on the line for safe workplaces, an eight-hour work day, a five-day work week, insurance, disability benefits, fair wages, dignity and respect for manual labor.
Farmers are laborers, too. While difficult to organize, they, like all workers, must depend on each other. Without farmers, without farm workers, without farm-related manufacturing workers, without transportation workers, farmers will not thrive, rural America will not thrive and the nation will not thrive.
Labor Day is a day to reflect on how we can do better for everyone. In 1925 Calvin Coolidge said, “ the chief business of the American people is business.”
What he also said that is generally not repeated was, “Americans make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things we want much more. We want peace and honor, and charity which is so strong an element of all civilization.” In these polarized times I hope those thoughts are still true.
So this Labor Day let’s celebrate the power of the worker, but no less the social movements that evolved with and from the unions. Perhaps this is another soul-searching moment when farmers and farm workers, like laborers, need to realize that they are all fair game for the corporate interests that control our lives. Workers need fair wages, farmers need fair prices.
We must join together to demand fairness for everyone.
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