(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)
When I was growing up Labor Day was the most, maybe the only, sacred holiday of the year. My parents were both ardent labor union activists. My mom was a member of Local 1199 in NY – the health care workers union. She worked in a pharmacy and that was the union for workers there. My dad was a member of District 65 which was then part of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Workers Union – he was a camera salesman. They both served as shop stewards during my childhood and I think before I was born they both held other positions in their unions with more responsibilities.
My parents met at an event my mother’s union was holding. They were showing a film and my father was hired as the projectionist, in the days before you could just slip a DVD into a computer to watch a film. I don’t know too much about their courtship, but their union came about because of union activities. I’m pretty sure that is not a unique situation.
I grew up going to Labor Day parades in NY – my stroller covered with streamers. I was so pleased when I got to be in a parade as a union member myself. It was 198? , the year that Reagan went all out to destroy PATCO. I belonged to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 3; I worked for a cable television company.
For this Labor Day, I’ll be going to a rally in Boston Common which will both celebrate labor, and the need of all people to have good health care.
The issues that arise on Labor Day are so closely related to an Ethical Culture view of the world. In Ethical Culture we follow the Kantian notion that all people are ends in and of themselves. We attribute worth and treat them with dignity and respect just because we are people. And here’s the part that’s most related to labor issues – we do not use people as means to reach our own ends. Seems to me that point has been missed by lots of people in the corporate and business world. I’m glad to say that there are also many who bring a very ethical and caring approach to their endeavors, there are those who form cooperatives, there are those who consider others and the natural world around them as they conduct their business.
But there are also many who see a business primarily as an opportunity to use the labor of others to make a lot of money for themselves. When workers join together in unions they have a chance to have greater influence on their working conditions, on how much they are paid for their work and what benefits they receive. The share holders of a corporation are very much like a “union” of business owners, looking out for what is best for them.
Corporations do not have to jump through hoops to organize the people with an interest in the profits of the corporation. Yet, others, workers, often do need to jump through hoops, or around other obstacles to be able to organize in labor unions. Even though workers, employees of a corporation also have an interest in the success of a business, they are not usually allowed to have input into the decision making which affects the business, and certainly not into the decision making which affects them directly.
Labor unions have been successful in providing a strong voice for employees, both on an individual level and on issues of local and national importance. At a time when unemployment levels in this country are incredibly high, I seeit as especially important that workers can organize for good working conditions. While many might say this is a time when businesses can’t afford to accommodate unions, I see it as a time when even more attention needs to be paid to not taking advantage of people – workers- not using people as a means for creating profit for some, but not for the people doing the work. As I understand it, the Employee Free Choice Act is a bill which would create a fairer process for union organizing. You can find out more about it in the Ethical Action section of the newsletter.
What is your experience with labor unions? How do you see a connection between Ethical Culture and Labor Day or labor issues?
About the Author: Susan Rose is the leader of Ethical Society Without Walls.
This article originally appeared in Ethical Society Without Walls on September 5, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.