We in the UAW have been in the forefront of every basic struggle in the country, and we have learned some very simple, fundamental truths; that you cannot solve a human problem by pitting one human being against another human being. We have learned that the only way you can solve human problems is to get people to join hands and to find answers to those problems together. And it’s for this reason that we reject the voices of extremism in America… …there are only common answers that we must find together in the solidarity of our common humanity.
Walter Reuther, – 1970 UAW Convention, April 1970
For much of my adult life, labor unions have been in decline. Labor unions, which have brought so many good things to workers (see the graphic; and, yes, the Unions deserve the credit for these worker benefits), have had some rough challenges in the last few decades; and longer.
But, labor – the work or everyday women and men – well, we could not function without their work. And during the Great Pandemic, we have really come to understand this.
Start with those who labor in the health care profession. They are tired; weary; exhausted; frustrated. But they keep showing up, and they care for the very real human needs of the people who need them the most. And they do so with compassion and…love.
And, I will share that I have had more interactions that I used to with my doctor, and other doctors. I find the people in these offices pleasant, responsive, competent. In other words, I am grateful for them and their work.
But, really, the good work of people, in all arenas, is all around us.
Like clockwork, every week for most of the year, a man and his crew show up to cut our yard. We have gladly been one of his clients for many years. And we have asked him to tackle a few other jobs in our yard through these years. He is reliable; he has a great work ethic. In other words, I am grateful for him and his work.
We have a favorite restaurant. In spite for the difficulties of the pandemic, they have been able to keep most of their long-term staff. Yes, the service is a tad slower, partly because of the added success (and strain) of a booming curbside pick-up business. But, we have never been disappointed with the food, or the service, at our favorite restaurant. That’s why it our favorite. And we are grateful for the servers and cooks and others at this restaurant.
You get the picture. We are surrounded by people who do their work. We have learned to call them “Essential Workers.” They always have been essential, you know… And we are grateful.
But, there is more to the Labor Day discussion. And that is, alas, there are some who want to take workers for granted.
Wages have been too low. There have been too many toxic job places, in too many arenas.
So, Labor Leaders have to speak up. As they always have.
Actually, everyone has to speak up.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. It is often referred to as the “March on Washington.” But, that is not accurate. The full name matters: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
On the leadership committee was the great Walter Reuther. He was a white man. He was a labor leader. At his tragic death at the young age of 62, in a plane crash in 1970, he had served as President of the United Automobile Workers since 1946.
It was a genuine tragedy to lose his leadership and his voice.
We get a glimpse of what he might say to us today by reading the quote above:
We have learned that the only way you can solve human problems is to get people to join hands and to find answers to those problems together. And it’s for this reason that we reject the voices of extremism in America… …there are only common answers that we must find together in the solidarity of our common humanity.
Common answers. With workers, and managers, and even customers, working together. That is what we seek. That is what we need.
So, Labor Day, 2021: thank someone who labors on your behalf. Do your own work with dignity and care. And with your words and actions, help build a society that honors and values all workers.
Happy Labor Day!