Labor Day: Unions Must Remain Vigilant and Proactive

Plaque, honoring Samuel Gompers for going THE EXTRA MILE, in the sidewalk on G Street, Washington DC. (Photo by C. Aklu)

By Chaitram Aklu

Since September 5, 1882, the first Monday in September, Labor Day was celebrated in New York City. Then in 1894 it became a national holiday when President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law making it official in the United States. Labor Day is a day to celebrate achievements in the struggle of the American worker. This year’s New York City’s Labor Day Parade will take place on Saturday, September 9.

According to a 2020-2021 Gallup Poll, only 9 percent of US adults reported being union members and 16 percent said they live in a union household. Fifteen percent reporting annual household income of $100 000 or more are members of a union compared to 12 percent in households earning between $40 000and $99 999. Union members earn higher pay (11 percent more), are covered by retirement plans (over 40 percent), and have health benefits (94 percent). Even non-members in a unionized workplace benefit from the gains won by unions through collective bargaining contracts

Samuel Gompers who founded the American Federation of Labor in 1886 was its president for 37 years and is credited with winning unprecedented rights and protections for the American worker. He believed workers power lie in collective bargaining. As a result he organized millions of workers in one national union. He was instrumental in laying the foundation (which was imperfect) on which labor leaders continue to build.

Gompers was a member of the cigar-maker’s union. He got together bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters and other skilled workers. But the men-only organization still withheld membership from unskilled workers. His reasoning was that unskilled workers could be easily replaced while scarce skilled workers would be difficult to recruit and therefore a strike by skilled workers would be most effective in achieving its objectives. In that sense Gompers was most successful, as during his tenure as president the union’s membership grew to 3 million, wages rose by 25 percent, the workday shortened to nine hours, although working conditions got worse for both skilled and unskilled workers. President Harry S. Truman in a tribute to Gompers said: “In his long life of effort for working people, he bitterly abused and vilified by the forces of special privilege.”

Union Members of the UFT, NYSUT and AFT joined SAG-AFTRA on the picket line in Manhattan August 22. (Photo: Credit – C. Aklu)

However Women (even skilled women), Latinos, African Americans, immigrants, and Asians were excluded from membership of the AFL. Child labor was still prevalent in the labor force. The task of organizing women was taken up by Elizabeth Morgan, a skilled factory worker. She founded an AFL for women in 1888 and formed the Illinois Women’s Alliance (IWA) which was instrumental in investigating working conditions in sweatshops in Chicago. It was the work of the IWA that led to Illinois, in 1893 passing laws that improved working conditions in sweatshops (where the Woman’s Alliance reported 14 – 16 hour work days were common for women and children), banning child labor, and mandated an eight hour day for women.

In 1909 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) called the largest general strike in the history of New York State – 30 000 workers responded within 24 hours. The strike lasted for 13 weeks when it was called off because of lack of funds. However while the ILGWU failed to get recognition, it won higher wages for its workers.
During the strike women stood strong and loyal to their union as shown in this strike song: In the black of the winter of nineteen nine,/ When we froze and bled on the picket line,/ We showed the world that women could fight./ And we rose and won with women’s might.
Today the struggle continues for affordable and improved healthcare for workers and their families and prescription drugs for seniors, fair wages, paid maternity leave, and better working conditions. Unions have to be vigilant against the ‘forces of special privilege.’ In nearly 20 states the minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders noted: “The $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage is a starvation wage. It must be raised to a living wage – at least $17 an hour,” One 2024 presidential candidate, a former New Jersey Governor, bragged that during his term in office he broke the teachers union in that state and cut public employee pensions.

At the time of writing The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is on strike. They were joined by SAG-AFTRA – the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) – The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) which represents some 160 000 members who provide services in every section of the entertainment industry – from actors, news writers, singers, dancers, news editors, to media workers. At a picketing action on August 22, in Manhattan, SAG-AFTRA picketers were joined in solidarity by non-striking workers from a wide cross section of labor unions in New York City.


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.