Career Calling

September 2, 2013

The Meaning of Labor Day

I just spent a couple of days in Springfield, Illinois, visiting many sites that honor one of America’s greatest heroes, Abraham Lincoln.  People think of Lincoln as the President who fought the Civil War and ended slavery.  We also marvel at his wisdom and morality.  What we often forget that Lincoln was a worker who believed in the dignity of labor.  As a young boy and man, he was a farm worker, rail splitter, boat worker, and surveyor – all before he was 30.  After moving to Illinois, Lincoln became a lawyer and politician.  He often argued that freedom depended on the ability to earn a fair living, and he compared kings to those who “live off the toil of others.”

After Lincoln’s death, American workers joined in labor unions that brought improved wages and working conditions.  Labor Day was made a holiday not long after the Pullman Strike in the late 19th century.  Many workers were jailed and died in the strikes and protests that brought change, including the ability to join unions.  The influence of unions pushed politicians to build a social safety net with its base as Social Security and Medicare.  Over the last 30 years, too many Americans took these advances for granted.  They accepted anti-worker and anti-labor propaganda while more and more of wealth and income was transferred from working people to – in Lincoln’s words – “those who live off the toil of others,” wealthy investors and their bankers.

This Labor Day we might be seeing a change coming.  Last year, the Chicago Teachers Union defied a Democratic mayor who hates labor almost as much as the most conservative Republican – and they beat him (at least until the school closings and budget cuts). Low wage workers in the retail and fast food sectors are starting to fight as miners and rail workers did more than 100 years ago. Like their great grandparents, they are engaging in direct action, risking arrest just to have the right to ask for a raise and join a union.  Elsewhere in Chicago, I see signs in the windows of many homes and signs on the lawn: Proud Union Home.  Working people are beginning to make their voices heard.  Lincoln would approve. 

Labor Day Extras

 Senator Elizabeth Warren discusses the importance of unions and respecting labor.

 President Obama praises labor and organizing without mentioning unions

 Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times reflects on the day.

 Amy Dean looks at the new face of labor – alt-labor – and the tactics it uses.

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