The true meaning of Labor Day
It’s all about working stiffs
So today is Labor Day, the holiday that’s all about finishing off the summer with a final big barbecue, and lots of big back-to-school sales … or, at least, that’s what it seems to be about for most people.
I wonder how many people actually take some time out of their holiday to think about what it originally meant – honoring working people and celebrating the benefits that labor unions brought to them.
The history hasn’t always been pretty, and there were some ugly incidents along the way. But the unions did manage to win benefits that many workers today take for granted, such as a 40-hour work week, safety regulations, prohibitions against child labor, pension plans, and medical benefits. Even workers who have never been near a union have gained from the work of unions.
Sure, especially in recent times, unions have become weaker – only a small fraction of the American workforce is currently represented by unions. And some unions have gone beyond their original purpose, insuring fair treatment of workers, into political activities that serve the purpose of union leadership. On a national level, the union that I belong to, the American Federation of Teachers, is one of the worst, lobbying against such things as school vouchers and merit-based teacher pay.
However, on a local level, the union has done good by me. When I first hired on as adjunct (i.e. part-time) faculty at the community college, there was no union, and instructors, especially part-timers, were poorly treated and powerless. Shortly after I was hired, the union came in, and since then I have gained benefits that, I am told, part-time faculty simply DO NOT get in most places.
I am entitled to health, dental, and vision benefits, with the share that my employer pays increasing according to how many hours I work. I have a small employer-paid life insurance policy with the opportunity to buy more coverage at a good rate if I wish. I have personal leave and sick leave proportional to the number of hours I work – roughly a half-week per term of personal leave, and a week and a half of sick leave. I have some job protection: If my contract is not renewed, my employer must explain clearly why, and if I don’t like that explanation, I can request arbitration.
So the union has been good to me, and every time I hear of someone whose employer has been unfair, I am glad that I have the union for my protection. I understand the true meaning of Labor Day.