Every so often there is a moment or an encounter that affects you for the rest of your life. These paradigm-shifting occasions are sometimes brief, while others enduring, sometimes scheduled, others unexpected.
Back in first days of 2006 — amid my preparations to return to Bloomington for my final semester at Indiana University — I was fortunate enough to accompany my dad to a meeting he was having with a group of local labor leaders. At the time he was just my dad — and executive editor of this weekly rag — but was considering a run for the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the determining factors in this deliberation was to meet with, and understand the issues and positions important to his constituent unions — and in turn, the plight of all of his laboring constituents. From that day forward, my view and understanding of what organized labor truly is has been forever altered.
Before that day, the only image I had of labor unions was portrayed by the few actors in the Oliver Stone movie “Wall Street” — a lonely few, pretty rough, unpolished mechanics. Intellectually I knew that this was not the whole story, but outside of classroom texts and studying historical events, “Wall Street” was just about the only image crafting my impression of organized labor.
Whatever predispositions I had were completely nixed. I could have sat in that meeting all day. I was amazed by the intelligence, sophistication and in-depth understanding of a broad range of issues.
Since that morning almost eight years ago, I feel truly fortunate to have gotten to know and become friends with a number of union members and leaders. I also feel fortunate to have been invited to some of their events where food and beer is never in short supply, but that’s not what this note is about — nor is it what Labor Day is supposed to be about.
Monday, Sept. 1, we celebrate our Nation’s 120th Labor Day. It occurs to me that my erstwhile (mis)perception about organized labor is probably not uncommon amongst my generation, but likely closer to the norm. In fact, I would venture to guess that Labor Day is more commonly viewed as Valentine’s Day — an economic stimulus based on eating, drinking and buying stuff — than Memorial Day — a national day of remembrance for those who served the United States.
Officially, as stated by the United States Department of Labor, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”
This note is not a competitive analysis of the importance of our national holidays — I would personally make daylight saving a national holiday called “Golfers’ New Year” — but rather a redress for a generation of Americans “celebrating” Labor Day under the guise of 50 percent off sales and the beginning of football season.
The fabric of organized labor is sewn in the power of the masses; while any one individual can be disposed of or marginalized, the strength in unity can overcome the forces of the few in power. So while most of my generation is taught the black-and-white history of unions — rife with seemingly common-sense successes such as workplace safety, child-labor laws and the establishment of a minimum wage — the struggle and lessons continue today.
The most hotly debated issue in this year’s campaign is focused on raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, a primary platform for the Democratic Party, while Republicans are stretching the spectrum of the debate to include questioning the existence of a minimum wage at all. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill signed into law by President Obama in January 2009, but equal-pay-for-equal-work is still merely an aspiration for women and minorities in several areas of the workforce — including Obama’s own White House, where The Washington Post recently reported a 13 percent gap in the average salaries of men and women.
Yet even more broadly, we live an era of the most pronounced divide between haves and have-nots in American history, the era of Occupy Wall Street, the “99-percenters” and, most recently, a record number three-quarters of Americans who do not believe that “life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for (them).” Whether we call it organized labor, unions or the 99 percent, eventually the repressed masses will coalesce around a common fight for fairness.
So on this, our 120th Labor Day… have fun, cook out, spend a bonus day with friends and family, but also know that you are a part of something — we are in this together and we always have been.