A section of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) contingent at the 2019 Labor Day Parade in Manhattan. The union was formed in 1960 and now represents nearly 200 000 members in New York City. Photo by C. Aklu
Simply put a labor union is a group of workers organized to protect their rights and improve working conditions. In 2021 American workers are working more hours than workers in Japan, Britain, France and Germany, but they are earning less. Workers in the United States earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25. It was 25 cents per hour in 1938. The highest minimum wage of $15 per hour is earned by workers in Washington D.C. California pays $14 per hour. There is great disparity even within states and sectors. In New York for example, the minimum is $12.50 statewide but it is $15.00 an hour in New York City and Long Island and Westchester County.
In 2020 the median weekly earnings for nonunion workers was 84 percent lower than union workers $958 to $1,144 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data released in January 2021.
In his 2019 authoritative book, Beaten Down, Worked Up The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor Steven Greenhouse makes this point: “Americans average 1,789 hours of work per year. That’s 70 hours per year more than the Japanese, 100 hours (two and a half work weeks) more than British workers, 266 hours (six and a half work weeks) more than French workers, and 424 hours (ten and half workweeks) more than German workers.”
The celebration of a special day Labor goes back to September 5, 1882, an event organized by the Central Labor Union in New York City and repeated in 1883. Canada had led the way ten years earlier in 1872 when it started celebrating Labor Day.
Workers had tried to organize to protect their rights since the early 1800s but faced strong resistance from employers. So it was not until 1869 that the first successful labor union, The Knights of Labor was formed. Still meetings were held secretly. It drew its membership from women, immigrants, African American Americans in both the skilled and unskilled labor force. It fought for equal pay for men and women and a shorter work day. At the time women and children worked up to 16 hours a day in sweat shops in very unhealthy and dangerous conditions without health and safety protections.
By 1894, 23 more states had begun observing Labor Day. That same year on June 28, President Grover Cleveland designated the first Monday in September the official Labor Day and a National Holiday. It has become a day of celebration of social and economic achievements of American workers.
According to Greenhouse, “Unions played a crucial role in achieving many things that most Americans now take for granted: eight hour workday, employer backed health coverage, paid vacations, paid sick days, safe work places. Indeed unions were the major force for in ending sweatshops, making coal mines safer, and eliminating many of the worst most dangerous working conditions in the United States.”
“A workers movement needs to serve as a countervailing force to corporate power, whether in fighting wage freezes, health care cuts, or corporate mergers that restricts competition and hurt consumers and workers alike,” notes Greenhouse.
Anti-union activists and employers hostile to unionization often try to use the argument that unions protect bad employees. Not true. Unions through collective Bargaining Agreements protect due process rights – by demanding fair investigation and fair hearing for accused workers.
According to an AXIOS article by Dan Primack 10.8 % of all wage and salaried workers were members of unions - an increase by .5 % from 2019. And black workers (11.2%) were more likely to be union members than white (10.3%), Asian (8.8%) or Hispanic (8.5%) workers. Also there is a huge gap between public sector (34.8%) and private sector (6.3%) workers.
President Joseph Biden in his Labor Day, 2021 Proclamation noted as he has said many times when addressing working people: Hard-working Americans are the backbone of our country. --- the middle class built America - and unions built the middle class. – I committed to ensuring that all workers have a free and fair opportunity to organize a union and bargain collectively with their employers. This has been a guiding principle of our Nation since union organizing was explicitly encouraged by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.”
Biden’s point is relevant. In March Amazon (employs 1.3 Million Worldwide and about 500, 000 in the US) Warehouse workers in Alabama held a mail in vote for union recognition. But the results showed a 2-1 vote against unionization. Now a federal labor officer has found that Amazon engaged in union busting tactics that did affect the outcome of the election results. The official recommended a new vote and they may get it.
Some 66 countries around the world celebrate Labor Day on May 1as a national holiday.