This past weekend, all across the country Americans celebrated Labor Day – a holiday that honors hard working Americans who fought and continue to fight for fair treatment under the law. This noble history deserves remembrance as workers today deserve appreciation for being the backbone of our country. Unfortunately, some workers’ unions, like the United Farm Workers (UFW), need a history lesson to remind themselves who they are supposed to be representing.
After the American industrial revolution many of the available jobs were in unsafe conditions for low wages. People often worked for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, without having earned any fringe benefits. Children as young as 10 were working manual labor jobs in hazardous conditions like coal mines and factories.
Seeing these injustices firsthand, workers attempted to band together to fight against these conditions in the form of labor unions. Many business owners did what they could do to suppress union activities such as: protests and strikes which tragically led to violence.
The first Labor Day parade which was organized by a union to honor workers, was in 1882 in New York City. The workers had gathered to demand fair wages, put an end to child labor, and the right to unionize. The first ever recognized Labor Day was in Oregon in 1887, and once this was established other states had followed suit.
In 1894 railway workers in Pennsylvania went on strike to protest the issue regarding wage cuts. Thus, President Grover Cleveland sent in 1,200 federal soldiers to break up these protests which resulted in the death of two strikers. In an attempt to rectify the tragic loss of life, President Cleveland declared Labor Day as a federally recognized holiday.
Despite this new holiday, it would still be decades until workers’ conditions could improve substantially. It wasn’t until 1938, that President Franklin Roosevelt signed a law calling for an 8 hour work day, a 5 day work week, and put an end to child labor. These were some of the first federal protections for American workers, that occurred a century ago after the industrial revolution.
Labor unions exist all across the country but have a special place in the heart of many Californians. In 1962, the legendary activist Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, later to become the United Farm Workers (UFW). He was joined by labor leaders such as, Dolores Huerta which established the United Farm Workers who fought for better working conditions across California in order to expand in other states like Texas.
Unfortunately, the actions of the UFW over the past few years could lead some to believe that they have forgotten about their own noble history.
In the case of Gerawan Farming, the UFW disappeared for two decades and then came back to force a labor contract on the farm workers that would have lowered their take on home pay, and the UFW attempting to steal a three percent cut of workers’ salaries. A wage cut was exactly what the railway workers had protested in 1894 which led to the creation of a federally recognized Labor Day in the first place.
The California Globe reported last year that in 2017 the UFW had to pay out a $1.3 million settlement to a former UFW employee who sued them, “claiming the union withheld back pay and overtime, in addition to subjecting him to unfair labor practices.”
The UFW has also been caught intimidating workers who were conducting a peaceful protest at a public meeting, whereas labor unions in the past would be the ones fighting on the other side to protect protestors.
As people around the nation celebrated Labor Day, I hope the current leadership of the UFW remembered not only how far we have progressed, but also the ideals that made the labor movement thrive. Given the state of the UFW organization today, it seems they still have many lessons to learn.
Bryan Lopez is a former Commissioner in Norwalk, CA.