President John F. Kennedy once said, "The American Labor Movement has consistently demonstrated its devotion to the public interest. It is, and has been, good for all America."
On this Labor Day, 2016, it's good to remember what Labor Unions have brought us -- particularly today when workers' rights are under attack on the federal, state and even the local level with such insidious enthusiasm.
Here's a baker's dozen reasons why we should take a moment this Labor Day to thank people who care enough about their neighbors to be in a union and to appreciate what Organized Labor has brought us.
- The weekend
- The 8-hour Work Day
- Overtime Pay
- Minimum Wage
- The 40-hour Work Week
- Unemployment Insurance
- Child Labor Laws
- The Age Discrimination and Employment Ac of 1967
- The American With Disabilities Act
- Workers Comp
- Social Security
- The Equal Pay Acts of 1963 & 2011 requiring equal pay for women.
I'm a proud card carrying member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO. And, for the couple of decades I spent working for labor unions in the local building trades, I received the Rochester Labor Council's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
They were the best years of my life and, there's probably nothing I enjoy more than sitting around telling war stories about those "good old days" which really were just yesterday.
A lot of people say that Organized Labor's day has passed. People think that the days of business and government beating down striking workers and using their power to devastate working families is a thing from another time. Ancient history. Something out of the nineteenth century.
I'm here to tell you that it isn't so. The need for the protection of the rights of working families is even greater today than ever before.
And since I promised you a "baker's dozen" reasons, here's a story from early in my career that provides yet another.
Back in June of 1996, over 1,500 labor activists gather in Cleveland, Ohio to do something historic -- found a political party that would truly speak for working families. It was called the Labor Party, and its founder, Tony Mazzocchi -- head of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union -- was fond of the slogan, "The bosses have two parties. We need to have one of our own."
His idea inspired a couple of dozen of Rochester's Union leaders in the Building Trades to make the trek to Ohio and, I was among them -- slated to speak before the convention representing what was then Bricklayers Local 11. I wasn't a Bricklayer, I was a speechwriter and Steve Remington, who was then the Business Manager of the Local asked that I do it as my speaking skills would better express the sentiment of the members.
I labored over my words carefully, inspired by the task and the responsibility of speaking for the men and women of the craft. But when my time came to speak, I threw away those preciously prepared words in favor of speaking extemporaneously -- inspired by a guy I met in the hotel bar the night before.
Prior to that moment, I had been one of those people who believed that much of the violence that characterized the early days of the movement was over. Contracts, I believed, were agreed to in a civil manner, and strikes were just so much theatre.
But it just so happened that at the same time we were holding the convention, members of the Newspaper Guild and the Teamsters from the delivery facilities of the Detroit Newspapers were striking in the Motor City. While I was in the hotel bar, I literally fell over a guy in a wheel chair wearing his motorcycle colors, who was behind me in the crowded room and who I didn't see. I offered my apologies, bought him a beer, and we found a space at a table in the corner. Sadly, I don't remember his name, but the meeting was to be pivotal in my life.
"What are you here for?" he asked. I told him of my mission and returned the question.
"I'm a Teamster on strike from the delivery facility of the Detroit Free Press," he replied. And I couldn't help but notice that his wheelchair seemed to me to be somewhat of a obstacle to his throwing around bundles of newsprint.
At this point we were joined by a guy who was obviously a fellow Teamster, and my new friend pointed to him after noticing the look on my face.
"It's his fault," he said, and he pointed upward.
The story he told sends a shiver down own my spine to this day. (Note that I have cleaned up the language a bit for sensitive readers.)
"See, we work together over at the plant. And, last year on the day it was our turn to walk the picket line at the strike I stopped answering my telephone. I was looking at it as just another day off to work on my bike when this jerk knocked on my door to tell me it was time to go. I told him where to stuff it, but he's my partner so I had to go. We jumped on the motorcycles and off we went.
When we got there, there was a whole lot of guys there on the line and the bosses had beefed up security. In fact, they were doing a lot of intimidation at that point -- sending cars to neighborhoods where our Union leaders live. Following their kids to school. Harassing their wives in the supermarket. Crap like that.
We took our place on the line and kept on moving, marching in a long circle along the sidewalk, when suddenly, from out'a nowhere two big-butted guys randomly grabbed me -- Pinkertons, they were. And, while about a dozen of their buddies held back everyone else, they beat me so badly that I've been in this wheelchair ever since."
I was speechless.
The other Teamster then said, "Yeah -- this guy's one of the keynote speakers tomorrow." And then added, "You guys want another beer?"
Needless to say that when I gave my "warm-up" speech early the next morning I was inspired in a different way. This guy, who hadn't even been a strong Union guy -- was sitting in a wheelchair because he exercised his rights. And now, rather than sit by feeling sorry for himself, was one of the strongest advocates for action I had ever met before -- or since.
The tactics of vilolence had failed. Rather than intimidate him, they made him stronger.
When my new-found friend wheeled down the center aisle in the convention hall the next day, the crowd did something he couldn't ... they gave him a standing ovation. And believe you me, there wasn't a dry eye in the place by the time it was over and he told his story.
He gave one of the most inspiring speeches I have ever heard from a Union guy. He changed my life and I remembered him often over the next twenty plus years I worked for Unions.
So, while you're having a hot dog today, or cracking another cold one and running around with the kids, maybe you can take a moment to remember that the rights for working families you enjoy are delicate. They didn't come from some far off march a couple of centuries ago. They were won just yesterday by guys and gals in the mail room, and on the factory floor, and on picket lines who were just like you and me, but who paid a bigger price than we will (hopefully) ever have to.