On Labor Day, ATU leader puts current events before history

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Spin Cycle

News, views and commentary on Long Island, state and national politics.

Larry Hanley, the politically focused Amalgamated Transit Union international president from New York City, disputes the idea that the labor movement is consigned to history.

His Labor Day weekend message: “Some people believe that unions are no longer necessary, but even a minimal understanding of the growing income inequality in our countries makes it abundantly clear that workers need to act forcefully now to stop the erosion of their ability to earn a living wage.”

As an alternative to some publications' annual reprint of "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," here's Hanley's piece:

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This weekend we will celebrate Labor Day in the United States and Canada, a day most people think of as nothing more than time off for picnics or a last trip away with their friends and family.

Unfortunately, a growing number of people who have the day off won’t be happy about it because it will be a day they don’t get paid.  For them, having the day off means that they will have less to eat, will have to delay a trip, or skip a prescription refill. And many others still remain without a job.

Many of those with jobs are forced to work more than one full- or part-time job with irregular hours and no job security, just to get by. They are all but invisible, yet they are all around us working long hours for minimum wages, maximizing profits for their wealthy bosses.

These are the working poor who endure the very same conditions that gave rise to the labor movement in the 1800s – no paid vacation days, no sick days, no consistent work rules, poor safety, and no employer-provided health care.

Labor Day is also a time to reflect on all of the hardships that were endured by those who fought and died so that we could enjoy the fair fruits of our labor.

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But by solely focusing on the past we risk seeing the labor movement as a vestige of history; something that was great in its day – but of little relevance in the 21st century.

That suits the enemies of working families just fine. The more we think of trade unionism as some sort of quaint artifact of an earlier era, the freer they will be to exploit workers who don’t even know that there are labor laws in place to protect them.

Some people believe that unions are no longer necessary, but even a minimal understanding of the growing income inequality in our countries makes it abundantly clear that workers need to act forcefully now to stop the erosion of their ability to earn a living wage.

The glue that keeps our nations together – the middle class – has all but disappeared.  And this is not simply an economic issue for those who find that they can’t pay their bills, no matter how hard they work.  Human dignity is under assault, and our nations ignore this at great peril.

If we learned anything from the recent racial strife and civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri (and I’m not sure we have), it’s that you can’t treat people like they are less than human for very long.  If we don’t start providing citizens with real economic opportunity, Ferguson will happen over and over again all over America, and even in Canada.

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And so, this weekend, I suggest that rather than reflecting on the past, we focus on tomorrow and the opportunity working people have to build a movement to rise up and challenge the growing classism in our society. The future of our children depends on it, and I hope we seize that opportunity.

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