Every year, in mid-to-late May, numerous sources tweak our consciousness and remind us that Memorial Day means more than a long weekend, store sales, parades and picnics. We’re reminded that the day was set aside to remember those who have made great sacrifices for freedom in the United States. Those reminders are entirely appropriate.
Sadly, in our experience, Labor Day often comes and goes with no such consciousness tweaking. Bring on the sales, bring on the picnics, and any potentially-sad reflection is reserved for those school kids who would really prefer that summer vacation go on forever. Labor Day deserves better.
Most people alive today have to study history to understand that the labor movement is much more than what they see when they encounter a union. They might see picket signs, they might be inconvenienced by a strike, they might hear about unions organizing workers to vote, they might hear about union leaders negotiating contracts with various companies. The labor movement is much more than that.
There are those among us who are so talented and valuable that they could write their own employment tickets regardless of market conditions. We admire and applaud you—and the following is meant for everybody else.
Do you have weekends off, or some equivalent re-charge time? Do you get paid vacation and sick leave time? Is your workplace safe, and are workplace injuries considered your employer’s responsibility? Can you take breaks during your work time? Do you get health insurance through your work? Is your pay similar to pay in comparable companies and comparable industries?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, it’s highly unlikely that those circumstances came about because you’re just so darn good at what you do. In all likelihood, you owe a debt of gratitude to people who were union members or striving to become union members; who fought, who risked and lost their jobs, who risked and lost their lives, so that most employees today—unionized or not—can take most of these benefits for granted. Whether or not you are a union member or support the labor movement in any way is immaterial. Everyone benefits from their work and sacrifice.
Most employees will have those benefits tomorrow, next week and next year, and will never once have to think about the people who worked in sordid, unsafe conditions; who worked when they were children; who got fired the day before they were to be vested in the company’s pension plan; who marched in the streets and took bullets from taxpayer-funded guns. Maybe you didn’t think about them at all this most recent Labor Day. We urge you to think about them in time for next Labor Day...and maybe even a few times in between.