Ah, Labor Day! The lovely bitter-sweet holiday that closes out summer's outings and school vacations. Ever wonder what the celebration is all about?
On Sept. 5, 1882, 10,000 union workers marched through the streets of New York. This first Labor Day celebration culminated in a family picnic and concert featuring speeches by union leaders, including Carpenter's Union firebrand Peter McGuire, the champion of the eight-hour workday. Twelve years later, Congress recognized the importance of the Labor Movement and adopted Labor Day as a national holiday.
Since that time, globalization has reduced the size and influence of America's industrial unions. That decline has been abetted by our political leaders' failure to develop policies to promote industrial work within our nation's borders.
In 1954, one of every three working Americans was represented by a union. Today that ratio has fallen to one out of eight. Yet research shows tens of millions of American workers would join a union today if they did not fear retaliation from their employer.
Public commentary about the value of unions has shifted too. Hateful denunciations of "big labor" abound in the media. Well-paid pundits such as Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh pontificate about the "evils" of unionism and the "special benefits" received by unionized government employees.
So what is there to celebrate this Labor Day?
For starters, more than 15 million Americans belong to unions (that's 35 times as many people as voted for Ron Paul in the 2008 presidential election). Today, unionized workers earn about 28 percent more than their non-union counterparts. Unionized workers are four times more likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance. A union worker is two-and-a-half times more likely to have a pension plan than a non-union employee.
Today, unionized building construction trades people possess striking advantages in their craft, because of apprenticeship programs and ongoing skills training and skills enhancement programs.
Today, unions provide countless opportunities for members to be involved in our nation's civic life through labor-sponsored political and volunteer activities. Have you noticed that ruthless dictators traditionally crush or try to co-opt their nation's unions? That's because unions are ardent practitioners of democracy.
So this weekend, as you fire up the grill and relax with friends and family, please keep in mind why Labor Day is a national holiday. We are honoring a national movement that survives in spite of difficulties and continues to advocate for better wages, health insurance, pensions, Social Security, family and medical leave, civic participation and workers having a voice at work. The Labor Movement is not just about better working conditions — it is about building better lives for workers.
Peter McGuire called that first Labor Day, "A harbinger of a better age." One step toward that better age would be for Congress to adopt the Employee Free Choice Act, which would afford more Americans the opportunity to belong to a union, strengthen the nation's economy and rebuild the middle class.
And that's what all of us are building, together.
Happy Labor Day!
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Tom Iacobucci of Amesbury and George Embleton of West Roxbury are instructors at the Archdiocese of Boston's Labor Guild in Weymouth.