NOTE: This blog essay was first posted September 2, 2014 -- the day after Labor Day that year. It seems even more applicable today, prior to the September 5, 2016, Labor Day Picnic of the Iowa City Federation of Labor.
I am glad to know that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he wants to! I would to God that such a system prevailed all over the world.-- President Abraham Lincoln, "Notes for Speech at Hartford, Connecticut," March 5, 1860, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, p. 7
Labor unions have meant new dignity and pride to millions of our countrymen—human companionship on the job, and music in the home -- to be able to see what larger pay checks mean, not to a man as an employee, but as a husband and as a father -- to know these things is to understand what American labor means.-- Adlai Stevenson, Democratic Party Presidential Nominee, 1952, 1956
Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. I have no use for those -- regardless of their political party . . ..-- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954
Every advance in this half-century--Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another--came with the support and leadership of American Labor.-- President Jimmy Carter [Previous three quotes from "Presidential Quotes."]
It was working men and women who made the 20th century the American century. It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.-- President Barack Obama, "President Obama on Labor Day: The Fight for America's Workers Continues," Milwaukee, Sept. 6, 2010
Yesterday, Labor Day, September 1, 2014, I attended the Iowa City Labor Day Picnic in the Iowa City Park -- as I usually do on Labor Day. There are pictures, below, that capture a wee bit of the spirit of that gathering. It is an opportunity once a year for members and friends of labor to gather, share food everyone has provided (what we used to call a "pot luck" meal), listen to political candidates and quality live music, and generally share what was a lovely summer day in the park.
Most union members have at least some notion of the history of labor in this country, and the sacrifices that were made by our predecessors to gain the right to bargain with management collectively rather than individually. There are brief references to that history in Labor Day speeches, but that's about all. The folks present yesterday know that history, and didn't need anyone to run through all the details.
When I wrote it I had done no research, and just spoke from the heart and memory. As you'll see from the quotes above, which I've just found on the Internet, apparently a great many others -- of all political stripes -- have shared these sentiments over the years, from President Lincoln to President Obama.
Here is that Facebook entry:
Regardless of your politics or what you've been told about unions, take a moment tomorrow to thank "Those wonderful folks who brought you the weekend, the minimum wage, the end to child labor, the 40-hour week, a safer workplace than you otherwise would have had, the decades-long fight for healthcare (remember, health INSURANCE is not health CARE), Social Security in your old age -- among a great many other things."Here's my point. On July 4th every American celebrates the Revolutionary War, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the beginning of our nation. It is not a day limited to the descendants of those who fought in that War -- such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. We all celebrate, we all remember.
Remember, they also were beaten and died and imprisoned when they stood up for their rights (and ours) in the face of police and National Guard called out by public officials as much in the pocket of the corporate interests of their day as ours are today. Unions were the muscle that built the post-WWII middle class, and booming economy, and elected officials who talked to each other and did stuff. This poster tells it all: "United We Bargain. Divided We Beg." It's the only way that's ever worked. Since the 1980s we've been begging.
No, I'm not saying everyone needs to go to a labor union's Labor Day picnic, anymore than everyone should go to a DAR meeting on July 4th. But on both days, I believe, it contributes to our nation's civic health for all of us to reflect upon the debt we owe to those who have gone before us -- along with the ways in which the economic and other problems we have as a nation today are a product of our failure to remember, and apply, the lessons we should have learned when labor unions were a partner with business in building one of the greatest periods in our history.
From 1945 until the 1980s unions were strong. The rich paid substantial taxes, and income inequality was nowhere nearly as stark as it is today. The economy was booming; union workers were paid well, and spent freely, which increased the profits of business, created a demand for more jobs, enabled parents to afford college for their kids, and kept things humming. As a result, both the rich and their workers did better than they otherwise would have.
We need to realize, for example, that what is called a "raise" in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.50 is not a raise at all -- it is merely bringing the minimum wage back up to the level of buying power it had in 1968.
When Wall Street and big business treat the human mothers and fathers who are their workers as a "cost center," and expense item -- even putting aside the human consequences for a moment -- the resulting decline in the economy, as those workers lose buying power, ends up harming the rich as well as the poor.
Unions, the ability of workers to bargain collectively rather than individually, and to be paid at least a living wage, has always been the only way to maintain any economy -- especially one like ours that is 70% dependent upon consumer spending.
OK, enough of all that. Here are some pictures from a great Iowa City Labor Day.
Here is what the shelter and the grounds looked like when I arrived on my bicycle. Tom Jacobs took this picture; the others are ones I took. Congressman Dave Loebsack had a lot of Labor Day events to hit yesterday, and so was allowed to speak and run before all the food had even been set out.
But the food was soon laid out on a table as long as the shelter house for these folks who like to talk almost more than they like to eat. Some stayed out in the sun, but most gathered at the shelter house tables, as I did.
One of the continuing highlights of the event most years, as it was this year, was the very generous provision of live music throughout the afternoon provided by Pigs and Clover, otherwise known as Matt and Jamie Kearney. They have one of the greatest collections of union songs I've ever heard, great voices, a driving guitar and drum rhythm, and a good sense of fun.
To give you a sense of the music (and the crowd noise) here is a one-minute excerpt from their rendition of "Mean Winds" (taken by me with an iPhone):
As a special event, our Johnson County Attorney, Janet Lyness, took and passed the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Ice Bucket Challenge executed by her daughter.
All in all it was a really great day.
September 5, 2016, promises to be as great a day as September 1, 2014 (although no ice bucket challenges are on the program this year so far as I know).