Labor Day has become a transitional holiday. To some it is considered the last vestige of summer, while others see it as the beckoning of fall; the start of football season, the baseball stretch drive, or even a time when we enjoy one less hour of sunlight.
However, it is far more than a day off from work or school. Labor Day traces its roots back to the late 19th century when early union leaders fought sometimes bloody battles for fair pay, safe working conditions, improved job security and—possibly its most famous role—the right for workers to organize. Back then, there were no fair wage laws; no overtime; no enforcement of safe working conditions; job discrimination could be done with impunity; and there was no time off for holidays; no child labor laws and no advance notice of dismissal. Union organizers/sympathizers could be fired, arrested and, in the case of the 1894 Pullman Strike, beaten and even murdered.
The aeronautics industry has made the Antelope Valley a signature region for union membership, and today retired union members often still support the social and economic achievements attained by union membership. And while the holiday can sometimes pale in comparison to the somber and flashy displays of Memorial Day and July Fourth, Labor Day may have increased meaning these days because of the slow but steady climb out of a five-year economic downturn.
Often associated with socialism and confused with communism, Labor Day is a seminal opportunity to reflect on American workers who toil 40-hour-plus weeks to supply their families with regular meals, a roof over their heads, clothing and fineries, the privilege of an education and an opportunity for social and economic advancement. Labor Day has little to do with so-called spring “May Day” celebrations which coincide with International Worker’s Day, nor does the holiday draw a sharp division between management and employees. Americans resolutely uphold this tradition by mobilizing and bringing a message of a continued struggle to maintain the nation’s reputation as having the “world’s highest standard of living.”
With corporations finding new ways of producing goods and providing services with less paid personnel, workers’ rights organizations such as the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Teamsters have been severely tested during the past decade, because of the new global economy, as well as “downsizing” and “oursourcing” to less developed nations that can supply the needed workforce and produce the same goods at a fraction of the American payroll.
“As workers, we are constantly under siege,” said SEIU 721 President Bob Schoonover. His union will host its annual Labor Day rally in Wilmington on Monday. “Labor Day is a time to come out and be with our union family to celebrate our accomplishments together.”
There has been an increase in companies either moving to or opening up in the Antelope Valley. This week a new employer arrived in Palmdale and is seeking to fill 150-plus positions for master scheduler, production supervisors, manufacturing engineers and mechanical and electrical quality control inspectors and technicians. Palmdale’s South Valley WorkSource Center has been busy during the last few months bringing job seekers and employers together for no-cost placement and recruitment services.
The Labor Day holiday would seem a logical time for job creation, and the employment center is continuing its mandate to reduce unemployment and provide a positive impact to the community through the power of work. This is done, in part, by the WorkSource Center contracting with agencies such as Goodwill Industries, to place workers into viable employment.
The Goodwill mission statement may say it best about the value of an honest day’s labor: “Since 1916, Goodwill Southern California’s mission has been to ‘Transform Lives Through the Power of Work.’ We serve individuals with disabilities and disadvantages, as well as businesses, by providing education, training, work experiences and job placement services.”
Whether a person is part of a union or non-union shop, America’s workforce is getting older. Since the end of World War II, the labor movement has traditionally been the backbone of the baby-boomers. However, beginning in the 1980s, a so-called “war on unions” has cut membership drastically, from the assembly line, to the airport control tower, to public service agencies (peace officers, utility workers, fire protection), to the agricultural fields and even into the classroom. Pension plans, time-and-a-half, annual “cost-of-living” wage increases etc. were once part of the vaunted “union package” which lifted a generation from entry-level positions into the social middle class.
A 2012 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said union membership was down (to 11.1 percent) from 11.8 percent in 2011. Also, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.4 million, also declined over the year. In 2012, 15.9 million wage and salary workers were represented by a union. This group includes both union members (14.4 million) and workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract (1.6 million). A total of 7.3 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union in 2012, compared with 7.0 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public-sector workers (35.9 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private-sector workers (6.6 percent).
The report revealed that, within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate (41.7 percent). This group includes workers in heavily unionized occupations such as teachers, police officers, firefighters; private-sector industries with high unionization rates included transportation and utilities (20.6 percent) and construction (13.2 percent). Low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.4 percent) and in financial activities (1.9 percent).
“Labor is at a bit of a crossroads,” said Anthony DeAngelo, spokesman for the Nevada AFL-CIO. “Our members are struggling to come back from the recession, and we are as well.” Interviewed last week for the websiteUnion.org, DeAngelo said labor organizations must be willing to “adapt and evolve” to continue their mission to assist members and to attract new devotees. “Every worker wants good wages and good benefits,” he said. “We want to see our non-union brothers and sisters have access to these things. There’s no prefix to ‘worker.’ It’s regardless of union or non-union, private or public sector.”
In Southern California—and across the nation—there is a new face of labor. Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, in May told the New York Times that immigrants offer the best potential for growth in a union movement that is often seen as foundering. The power of immigrants within unions, she said, was seen vividly in service-worker protests in Los Angeles, as well as in the extensive voter outreach witnessed during the recent L.A. mayoral contest.
“You look around at who has the most difficult jobs, at who is doing the work we rely on everyday, and it is immigrants,” said Durazo, the widow of Miguel Contreras, the former head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor and famed for building a coalition of elected officials, clergy and civil rights advocates. “If we look at what we can do for them, what we can do together, we see that there can be very important rewards that will improve their lives. We cannot fix the prosperity of the rest of the country without improving the prosperity of immigrants.”
Today’s workforce looks considerably different than the previous generation. Long gone are the 20- and 30-year careers in industries such as aeronautics, automotive, construction or health care. There are more persons of color, more women, more immigrants and, as the nation inches its way out of the Great Recession, there are more seniors who have had to return to work to supplement Social Security and pension plans.
On Wednesday, the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One of the leaders of that march in 1963 was UAW President Walter Reuther who walked arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as with African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In reflecting on the influence of the labor movement in pressing for civil and voting rights, current UAW President Bob King said this month: “Now, more than ever, we need to find the will to continue Dr. King’s work. His vision of a society where we can truly look past what divides us to what unites us to make a better America is far from realized.”
UAW marched again this week to the Lincoln Memorial where the labor union head lamented that the economic message delivered a half-century ago has been “… turned on its head by a small minority of wealthy individuals at the expense of the majority of Americans who do the hard work to make this nation great.”
Forbes magazine, this week, released the results of a survey of 5,000-plus adults who revealed their uncertainty about making big-ticket purchases this holiday weekend. The survey found that 75.9 percent of consumers worry about their next paycheck, and they do not place much trust in the future of their place in employment. The article explained that the “lack of trust” could mean the respondents understand that their job is fragile, that the company may not be in a solid financial situation, or that the respondent may not have advancement potential within the organization.
In terms of obtaining and keeping a job, 55 percent of the respondents said they feel a bit more positive about holding a job which can represent a dramatic improvement after the challenging years following the economic crash of 2008.
Labor Day was first nationally recognized in 1894 to placate unionists following the Pullman Strike. It is argued, however, that the holiday was proposed first in 1882 by Matthew Maguire, a machinist who was serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York. Still, others claim the holiday was proposed that year by one Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor. Oregon in 1887 was the first state to make it a holiday and by then 30 states had been celebrating it on the first Monday in September.
When the Pullman Strike resulted in the deaths of several workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. marshals, President Grover Cleveland signed the holiday into law just six days after the end of the strike.
The celebration began originally with town parades and exhibits touting the “strength and spirit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,” followed by a festival for workers and their families. This would become a pattern for Labor Day celebrations that also included speeches by prominent community members.
Today, the holiday marks the traditional end of summer and, astoundingly, the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, and the day’s reported revenues are second only to “Black Friday” which is the 24-hour period after Thanksgiving Day. It is a big day for retail sales, barbecues and, in times past, the final day when women could wear white or seersucker. Other popular Labor Day weekend festivities include the start of college football, the famous Southern 500 NASCAR auto race, and the finals of the National Hot Rod Association drag racing competition at Indianapolis Raceway Park in Indiana.