#1 – Let’s honor and esteem our workers.
#2 – Let’s protect our workers.
There seems to be a whole lot of anti-labor sentiment these days. That is, I think, a little wrong-headed. And it reveals some very short memories.
Let’s take them in reverse order:
#2 —Let’s protect our workers.
So, here’s the thing. People can be cruel, horribly abusive to other people. So can companies, with “bad” leaders and “negligent” policies.
And, well-meaning people can be “duped” by those with whom they do business. Yes, Virginia, there are companies that abuse its workers.
Do you remember the case of the sweatshop workers making clothing for the Kathie Lee Gifford line? When it was first reported, Kathie Lee stated firmly that it was not happening. She then discovered it was. She apologized, and worked toward better worker conditions, appearing at the White House while Bill Clinton was President, to counter international sweat shop abuses.
Or, do you know the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire? Here’s the summary paragraph (from Wikipedia):
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. It was also the deadliest disaster in New York City until the destruction of the World Trade Center 90 years later. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged sixteen to twenty-three; the oldest victim was 48, the youngest were two fourteen-year-old girls. Many of the workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. People jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.
In the aftermath of the fire, within two years the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union “had organized roughly ninety percent of the cloakmakers in the industry in New York City. It improved benefits in later contracts and obtained an unemployment insurance fund for its members in 1919.” (from the Wikipedia article: International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union).
So, protecting the workers seems to be a long-term, and ongoing need. Further reminder: let’s remember that Chesley Sullenberger, leading a team of true professionals to land an engine-less airplane safely in the Hudson River, served as the Air Line Pilots Association safety chairman.
And this is a true ongoing need. Workers need safety; workers need protection. There is a long history of companies cutting back on safety. (Remember Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 were killed in an explosion in 2010. — “In 2009, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine for 495 violations and proposed $911,802 in fines.”) You might want to read: Fatalities Higher at Non-Union Mines—Like Massey’s Upper Big Branch.
Labor Unions take safety and protection quite seriously. I don’t blame them.
Now to the first of the two:
#1 – Let’s honor and esteem our workers.
I’ll keep this simple, and quote from Abraham Lincoln, from his annual message to Congress, 1861:
“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
Protect our workers. Honor and Esteem our workers. Two good reminders for this Labor Day.
“There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.”
Walter Reuther, Union Leader
He was pummeled by “thugs” hired by Ford in 1937. (“The union organizers were badly beaten and thrown down thirty-nine steps off an overpass. But a photographer from the Detroit News caught it all, and his photos helped convince courts that Ford was violating workers’ rights.” – from Defining a Nation, edited by David Halberstam).
But he worked tirelessly, and stood shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King and the other organizers at the March on Washington. In case you don’t know, or don’t remember, the full name was: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Here’s an excerpt from WALTER REUTHER: Working-Class Hero by Irving Bluestone, retired U.A.W. vice president, professor of labor studies at Wayne State University – Time Magazine, December 7, 1998:
For Reuther, unionism was not confined simply to improving life at the workplace. He viewed the role of the union as a social movement aimed at uplifting the community within the guarantees of democratic values. After his untimely death, with May, in a plane crash in 1970, waves of downsizing devastated cities and created problems for labor that still exist today. You can just imagine him wading into the fight against wanton job destruction, done for the sake of propping up corporate balance sheets.
One of his favorite slogans was “Progress with the Community–Not at the Expense of the Community.” What is unmistakably clear is that Reuther, in his lifetime, fulfilled his own philosophy of human endeavor.
A comment: have unions at times overreached? Yes, of course. When one asks that question, do you think it would be ok to also ask: have companies ever failed to adequately treat their workers with justice and dignity? Also, a yes…
This is a tough time for the American worker. Walter Reuther was a man who simply fought for the rights and dignity of the American worker. Not a bad life mission.