Wishing someone a happy Labor Day has always seemed a bit strange to me. It’s a day to celebrate organized labor, to acknowledge those who fought and died for things too many take for granted today: an eight-hour workday, a five-day work week, a weekend, a day off, an age limit. It wasn’t so long ago, here in the U.S., that little kids worked factories, or were newsies; it wasn’t so long ago that workers had no guarantee of breaks or time off. (Per Illinois state law, workers are supposed to get two 15-minute breaks and a 20-minute lunch break per 7-hour day. It isn’t much, but it’s something.)
Despite coming, on my mother’s side, from an old and dignified family that probably never dipped its toes in anything connected to labor, I have the movement in my blood–from a paternal great-great-grandfather (Karl, natch) forced out of his homeland for his communism and unionizing to a mother who has belonged to a musician’s union for more than fifty years, to a grandfather who encouraged his employees to unionize and a father who was part of an ultimately futile attempt to unionize labs, to me, who spent four years active in a teachers’ union, including several as a member of its Grievance Committee, the quest for workers’ rights has been a part of my life as long as I can remember.
The Dropkick Murphys demand that their listeners think about What Side You’re On. There was really never any question for me–I never crossed a picket line, I went occasionally with my mother to stand in solidarity, I chose a graduate school in part because its TAs were unionized, and immediately became active with my union. My work wasn’t always easy: though I primarily served in a back-room capacity, much more conducive to my own issues with shyness, it was often heartbreaking work. One is endlessly reminded of how far we have yet to go, even as we know how far we have come. And, of course, one knows that one could not move towards that greater good without one’s companions: when we all stand together, we are considerably harder to defeat. For that matter, I worked with some of the most wonderful people I have ever met while a member of the grievance committee. We all gave of our time–and it was often a lot of time–to strive for the best for our membership. It was truly an exercise in striving for the greater, or the collective, good.
Now, of course, the U.S. is one of the only countries around to have its Labor celebration at the end of summer, rather than on May 1, in remembrance of the Martyrs of Haymarket. Even worse, as this article from Jacobin notes, Labor Day was signed into being after Grover Cleveland broke the great Pullman Strike–a tarnished day, a day of infamy more than celebration. (PBS posits that Cleveland was hoping to make workers forget about his strike-breaking. It didn’t work, and he lost the election.) If anything, the ugly roots make it more essential to remember that Labor Day should be both a celebration of the worker and a time to remember, and to plan. The struggle is a long way from over: across the country, anti-union and anti-worker legislation has been passed, and the flames of anti-worker sentiment have been fanned.
My union experience was perhaps a bit different from many: a teachers’ union, ours represented teaching assistants and graduate assistants at an R1 in the cornfields. Cornfields or no, our struggles were consistent with workers’ struggles everywhere, and being a member of the grievance committee required not just time but also a tremendous emotional investment. It was taxing enough, emotionally, that I had to step away–yet I know that we did good work, and I know that others continue that work now, though so many of us who served together have graduated and moved elsewhere. And, as I know from my work in the union generally, and from my service on the grievance committee specifically, many of today’s unions stand for equality.
Paul Robeson: singer, actor, civil rights activist, singing about labor leader Joe Hill.
While in many ways this began even earlier, the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, supported by Martin Luther King himself, marks a very decided turn towards workers’ rights and civil rights combined. Today, women and people of color are much more likely to receive equal pay for equal work when they are unionized.1 Today, the fight for a $15-minimum wage continues. It’s a fight led largely by women and people of color, an organizing swell that may have been, as the Guardian tells us, the largest work action of its kind by low-wage workers in U.S. history. It’s inspiring and heartbreaking–and it’s worth pointing out that someone probably can’t live on 15 bucks an hour, either, although they’ll come a lot closer to having a living wage at $15 than at, oh, $7 an hour.
Illinois’ state-wide minimum wage is currently $8.25, but a bill has been passed to raise it by 2019 to $11–still pretty low, if one lives in the Chicago area. And Chicago’s minimum wage has recently risen to $10…still a long shot from a living wage for someone in Chicago. For those wondering, it costs a fair bit to live in Chicago–though, as one of my uncles often says, it costs a fair bit to live anywhere.2 (Since he lives like an ascetic monk, he’s not exactly talking about paying for fripperies.) Unions fight for a living wage–we fought for a living wage, trying to bring our union’s base pay up to living wage level. (Spoiler alert: we’ve yet to win such a thing, though we have won such concessions as modest insurance coverage, the right to spaces for breastfeeding mothers, and tuition waivers–which are always under attack.)
I was an officer (yes! me, who prefers to blend into the background!) during a contract negotiation cycle, and my fellows and I sat around many a pizza and coffee-strewn table, debating for hours. Someone once told us that nobody had meetings as long as we did. I’m still not sure if that is a mark of honor or simply of insanity, but there we were, and there our successors will be again, soon enough. It was terrifying: if we struck, could we win? How long could we hold out? Some of us would have held out on principle, yet principle does not pay the rent or put food on the table, and many of us (me included) do not come from families with money. But for the most part we did not need to worry about being killed–something those who paved the way for us had. Striking workers in Milwaukee were massacred in the 1886 Bay View Massacre as they took a stand for an eight-hour day.3 Frank Little was lynched for his work. Largely immigrant strikers in Pennsylvania were massacred by a sheriff’s posse in what is today known as the Lattimer Massacre. And tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which nearly 150 workers, mostly women, were killed, led to increased organizing–and, in the case of the Triangle Factory Fire, to an upswing in women’s involvement, spurred by reformers including the activist Rose Schneiderman.4
Much of what was won by the suffering, imprisonment, and deaths of those who came before us is being chipped away, sometimes overtly, sometimes more covertly. A full-time week is supposedly around 40 hours, yet a Gallop poll from 2014 shows what many of us have long known: it’s more than 40 (they figure the average is around 47 hours). And, as this BBC Labor Day article discusses, many Americans are afraid to take their vacation days, lest they be let go. (My family has not taken a vacation in around a decade, thanks at least in part to the recession and its job losses and lowered pay.)
When I became active in my own union, I found a space where my voice could, and would, be heard; where I could, occasionally, stand out, something possible for me only because I knew I had so many brilliant, dedicated people at my back. (I like to think Great-Great-Granddaddy Karl would have approved, but I don’t actually know a thing about him other than his rumored communism and his legendary labor activism, so who knows?) Despite the old, tired, and untrue stereotype of unions as a bastion of machismo and masculinity, mine was heavily female, including our co-presidents, one of whom was also our lead negotiator. (She was brilliant.) We were hardly the first women to be active in organizing, however. In 2014, the Zinn Project released a list of Women in Labor History, ranging from the quite historical (Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, and Hattie Canty, among many others) to the contemporary (including Ai-Jen Poo, Dolores Huerta, and May Chen), though there are several (including the president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, Karen Lewis) missing from their list.
Without women like Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman and Mother Jones and Hattie Chanty, we might not have been taken seriously as a union, run not only by PhDs and Master’s candidates but also largely by women. We have certainly built upon their gains, just as another union–or maybe even our own, in years to come–will build off ours.5 I built on a more intimate platform: that of my mother’s years in a union, and of my father’s failed attempts, and of my great-great-granfather Karl, who arrived in this land an exile. I built it around the towns from which I come: my hometown, Chicago, with its history of unions and of manufacturing; the small, dying Wisconsin town that has been home to my father’s family for well over a century; the small Wisconsin manufacturing city to which my mother moved, after her family left the East (that town was also a union town). I also built around the faith in which I was raised–as far as I’m concerned, its testimonies (peace, equality, integrity, community, simplicity–totally not my fave–and stewardship) are completely compatible with a social justice driven union. And I worked to help build a sturdier foundation, including rulings from the Illinois Labor Board, for those who would come after me: for my brothers, S and E, and who may one day attend the same R1 institution; for my friends still there; for the grad students to come; for other unions, other workers, in Illinois and, I would like to think, elsewhere. It’s one of the incredible things about being organized: alone we are so little, both figuratively and literally, but when we stand together, we are so, so much more.
Solidarity, on this Labor Day!
1 For a quick and easy read, see this 2015 article from Al Jazeera America. As usual, Al Jazeera is scrupulous about citing its sources; they include this report (available here as pdf) from the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, and this earlier article by Al-Jazeera. The National Women’s Law Center also writes about unionized women and equal pay.
2 For two different takes on cost of living, see MIT’s Living Wage Calculator (it looks low to me, at least from what I know of Chicago) and the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator.
3 For more on the Bay View Massacre, see the Wisconsin Labor History Society.
4 For more on the Triangle Factory Fire, see The Atlantic‘s article about Frances Perkins and Cornell University’s Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire.
5 We also learned super useful things, such as how to read contract language. I got really good at reading contract language after spending three and a half years doing it.