Today is Labor Day, which for many of us means a welcome end-of-summer holiday. Perhaps you’ll go to the beach, barbecue with friends, or picnic at a local park. For America’s working families, though, it’s is so much more than a day off: it’s a reminder of all the progress that has been made, and the challenges that remain, for American workers.
Labor Day originated during the Industrial Revolution, when many Americans worked seven day weeks of 12-hour days for very little pay. Child labor laws were scarce and rarely enforced, so it was not uncommon to see a child as young as five years old toiling in a factory. Unsanitary and unsafe conditions were the norm, work breaks were unheard of, and some workers were even physically chained to their stations.
No longer willing to accept the widespread exploitation and abuses enforced by iron-fisted owners who built impregnable monopolies and bought off corrupt politicians, workers began to fight back. Risking unemployment, deprivation, and physical assaults, they began to organize. Many events turned violent during this period, like the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which led to the deaths of many workers in Chicago.
Their numbers grew and their voices, collectively calling for reforms, eventually rivaled the strength of the owners. From that position of disciplined strength, they organized, negotiated for safe conditions and fair wages, and lobbied for elected officials to support their positions. In doing so, they gave birth to the American labor movement. The first annual Labor Day parade in New York City was held in September of 1882, when 10,000 workers marched from City Hall to Union Square.
Here are just a few milestones that American workers take for granted today but are in fact all due to the struggles and successes of organized labor:
- Lunch breaks
- Sick leave
- Minimum wage
- Child labor laws
- Workers’ compensation for injuries incurred on the job
- Workplace safety regulations
- Anti-discrimination protections in hiring
Thanks to organized labor’s decades of standing up to powerful political and corporate interests, most American workers are now guaranteed the same benefits whether they belong to a union or not. While the number of workers who belong to unions had declined, recently their numbers have started growing again, with renewed fights to achieve better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Just this week, Uber drivers and franchise employees won the right to be considered employees with the right to organize, rather than being regarded as contract workers.
Unions haven’t just organized for the benefit of workers and work-related policies. Organized labor has been at the forefront of social, environmental, and economic justice issues and legislation that benefits our society as a whole, like the Civil Rights Acts and Americans with Disabilities Act. Even Henry Ford understood that he needed to pay his workers well. Why? Because he needed them to buy his cars. With fair wages, safe working conditions, and stability, workers also bought homes, educated their children, and super-charged the American economy. In doing so, they lifted workers out of poverty and built a vibrant middle class.
Here in San Diego, organized labor supported the passage of the living wage. They brought shipyard workers and community members together to support a plan to reduce the harmful effects of industrial pollution in Barrio Logan. They have supported bonds that fund investments in our schools and public infrastructure. Standing with the Democratic Party, they’re advocating for an increase in the minimum wage and access to healthcare for all workers, union members or not. They organized taxi drivers working long hours for low wages to help them become proud and profitable entrepreneurs. They fight for public employees who take pride in their work and are accountable for their budgets against outsourcing to for-profit businesses that too often leave taxpayers in the lurch. They are also engaged in civic activities to educate and engage voters in the electoral process of our democracy.
The strength of our allies in organized labor lies in their unity and their ability to mobilize members to volunteer and vote. Often the only effective foil to monolithic, powerful, and wealthy corporate interests, they are invaluable partners in our shared goals of improving employment, wages, working conditions, and benefits — and electing candidates who will stand with us when it counts.
I hope you’re able to join the San Diego County Democratic Party as we celebrate Labor Day on Monday, September 7, at a special event with members of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council at the Padres vs. Rockies game.
Whether you’re with us at the Petco Park or grilling at home or on the beach, I hope you’ll also take a moment to remember and honor the blood, sweat, and tears that have been spilled by America’s labor force to improve life for all of us. Let us continue to work for a more equitable and sustainable society, side by side with our brothers and sisters in labor.
Chair, San Diego County Democratic Party