Labor Day Redux

Illustration of the first American Labor parade held in New York City on September 5, 1882 as it appeared in the September 16, 1882 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper – Public Domain

As we again approach Labor Day, a day set aside as a National Holiday in 1894, we commemorate the labor 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 may have initially been all white and all male but, that changed.

Unions were not about the individual, they were about everyone. If one is oppressed, all are oppressed. Labor unions evolved and recognized the need to bring everyone into the struggle regardless of color or gender, because the struggle was about everyone.

While we still celebrate the contributions of labor, currently, only one in 10 American workers is a union member, down from nearly one in three workers during the 1950s. But despite falling union membership workers are demanding better, demanding respect and fair wages.

While President Ronald Reagan’s firing of 12,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 could be considered to be the beginning of the war on organized labor, 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 only demand fairness and respect –- for all workers.

Now, 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 jobs, wages and the economy in general.

Whether it was exploitation from the “Robber Barron’s” 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, the mentality that suppresses women with a glass ceiling, or the outright discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community, the parallels are pointedly exact.

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 notion of social class. The labor movement was, and still is, a reflection of society. They 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 the laborers. Those who put their lives on the line, for safe work places, an eight hour work day, a five day work week, insurance, disability benefits, a fair wage, dignity and respect for manual labor. Farmers are laborers too, nearly impossible to organize, but 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 attain fairness, for everyone.

Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.