I wrote what follows several years ago. It appeared in Tucson’s Desert Leaf.
Everyone loves Labor Day. It's a great three-day weekend, with a paid day off. The weather's fine and the back yard and patio look as good as they have all year. If you're not going to the mountains, lakes or seashore... kick back, light the grill, and suck down a brew.
You might also remember to thank the men and women of organized labor, many of whom were beaten, murdered, or run out of town so that we could enjoy the eight hour day, paid vacations, pensions, and guarantees that women and children would not be exploited in the workplace.
You may have forgotten, but the eight hour day and the paid vacation are not part of the natural order of things. They represent labor union victories.
I am now about to use a certain word. It's not a bad word, it's just a simple noun. I guarantee you I do not freight it with any nasty emotional overtones. Ready?
Capitalism. Our economic system is Capitalism. It is a nifty system; it really works. But it is intrinsic to that system that it treats labor like any other raw material and will always try to buy it as cheaply as possible. It will go overseas for it; it will confine it in little cubicles; and it will buy a lot of it part time so it doesn't have to pay benefits.
That's the way the system works...for labor. It doesn't work quite that way for other kinds of raw material. Sure, a contractor will try to buy cement cheaply, but he has to dicker with the cement guy, who will raise or lower his price until the two can agree to do business.
In the sports world, when a college basketball star hires an agent to negotiate with team owners we think nothing of it. The agents bargain with the owners for the players' services and the athletes refuse to play until they have a contract. But if a group of carpenters gets together to do the same thing it's socialism...or worse.
On the 2nd of November in 1909, during what became known as the "Uprising of the 20,000," female garment workers went on strike in New York. Many were arrested and a judge told those arrested: "You are on strike against God."
Wow...who'd have guessed?
There's nothing unpatriotic about the union movement; it's as American as apple pie. Boston carpenters walked off the job in April of 1825 in the interest of a 10-hour workday. Ten years later, children working in the silk mills in Patterson, New Jersey went on strike. Of course they had an outrageous demand: A six-day workweek of eleven hour days.
Sweatshops, eleven-hour days, inadequate wages and wretched or dangerous working conditions are largely a thing of the past. The result is we tend not to notice or care about Capitalism's continuous attack on the power and even the existence of the union movement. This may not be a good thing.
A union is the average hourly worker's only defense against the economic power of a system that always tries to buy raw materials at the lowest possible price. It's not dumb, if you're an hourly wage person, to remember you're just so much raw material to that system.
The union maid and her guy aren't opposed to Capitalism. If you stop and think about it, the fact is that just the opposite is true. These folks simply want to behave exactly like all the other links in the capitalist chain of supply and demand. All they ask for is the right to bargain for the price they get for their labor and the conditions under which it is supplied.
Why should they be the only players in the game denied that right?
But for now, enough. Get the ol' hammock swinging, pop another brew, and dribble mustard on your shirt. Enjoy the day off with pay. It looks like we've all profited from the American labor movement, even if we've never belonged to a union.
On Labor's special day let's all heed the old organizing slogan and "Take it easy...but take it."