Here in the South we’ve always been a little suspicious of organized labor. Indeed our own Arkansas labor laws reflect that distanced view.
Even so, on the eve of the annual Labor Day holiday, it is fitting to reflect on some of the benefits all American workers derive as a consequence of organized labor. It’s easy to forget the child laborers of the last century, the women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, the coal miners sickened with black lung, the exploited fruit pickers out west and the sharecroppers here in the Delta.
It’s easy to forget those who toiled and tolerated so that we may enjoy the working environments that we now do. There’s a popular labor movement poster emblazoned with a quote from Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and never will.”
Douglass was absolutely right. Those with advantage will do what they must to maintain it — until somebody else gives them cause to relent. From the outset, organized labor has championed many noble causes. In states that are less amenable to the influences of organized labor, we tend to focus on the excesses of the modern labor movement. We watch as the avarice of northern unions shuttered automobile plants, steel mills and industries that were once an exclusive American purview. We sardonically muse that it’s no wonder jobs have flown the coup to other lands. After all, why pay an American 12 dollars an hour when you can pay a Vietnamese child 12 dollars a month? Still others decry the alleged impact of “over-regulation.” This too is misguided.
The present regulatory climate (compelled by organized labor) brought you such “excesses” as: overtime pay; sick leave; child labor laws; pensions; OSHA; workman’s compensation; social security; grievance procedures; unemployment insurance; the minimum wage; 40-hour work weeks; heath insurance and equal pay for equal work. In 1892, upon accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency, Grover Cleveland observed: “The laboring classes constitute the main part of our population. They should be protected in their efforts peaceably to assert their rights when endangered by aggregated capital, and all statutes on this subject should recognize the care of the State for honest toil, and be framed with a view of improving the condition of the workingman.”
Cleveland’s words provide the same admonishment today as they did more than a century ago. The workers of this nation have a rightful expectation of safety, fair wages, decent terms of employment and to be generally afforded their inherent human dignity.
A half century after Cleveland’s speech, American movie audiences watched Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Stewart’s character, George Bailey, attempts to sway local businessmen to the importance of his family’s dreary little building and loan, “…Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so…”
Three score years later, it still isn’t too much to ask. American labor built the mightiest democracy the world has ever known. American ingenuity has flown higher, swum deeper and raced faster than any other nation on Earth.
As such, when labor asks that their cup be just a little deeper, we owe them a fair hearing; and we owe them thanks.