On Monday September 5, Americans will observe the 130th Labor Day celebration. The Allegheny County Labor Council will host its 30th consecutive parade downtown.
Pittsburgh’s parade is one of the largest Labor Day events in the United States, with nearly 200 groups and 80,000 people participating. Everything good about your standard of living came to you through the organized labor movement. First celebrated by the Knights of Labor in 1882, Congress proclaimed a national holiday in 1894.
While labor unions have always celebrated Labor Day, many people are still confused about their purpose. The first unions arose in the middle ages, as artisans from the various skilled trades formed “guilds” to represent their common interests. They were stonemasons, carpenters, weavers, teamsters, and others. The old guilds gradually disbanded, but the idea didn’t die. Unions resurfaced in the mid nineteenth century, after the American Civil War.
They continued to grow, especially during the 1930s. By 1960, one-third of all American workers belonged to a union. Union membership declined from the late 1970s through the 1980s due to national political, economic, and social conditions. Now, only about 13% of working Americans belong to a union. You can trace the rise and fall of the American middle class with the rise and fall of labor union membership.
Individual members belong to local unions, usually organized by occupation. Locals belong to a national or international union, such as the United Steelworkers of America, or the American Federation of Teachers. Most unions belong to associations such as the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and the Industrial Workers of the World. Fifty-six individual unions, representing 10.5 million workers, belong to the AFL-CIO – the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. Dedicated organizers founded both the AFL and the CIO in Pittsburgh, and the combined organization is one of the most influential in the United States. The Allegheny County Labor Council is the local chapter of the AFL-CIO.
Pittsburgh is also the birthplace of three major unions – the United Steelworkers, International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Ironworkers, and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers.
Labor unions brought benefits to every working person in America, whether they belonged to a union or not. They are primarily responsible for establishing the middle class. We take these things for granted, but none of them existed before the rise of the unions.
IF YOU HAVE:
- An eight-hour workday
- A five day work week
- Paid sick days, vacation days, and holidays
- Family and medical leave
- Health, life, and disability insurance
- A pension
- Safe and healthy working conditions
- Proper job training
THEN THANK A UNION MEMBER.
Unions have campaigned for the minimum wage, wage and hour laws, ending child labor, and workers’ rights and privacy on the job. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages for union workers in all types of occupations are higher than for non-union workers. Union workers are better trained and less likely to be involved in workplace accidents and deaths. If you benefit from any of these things, THEN THANK A UNION MEMBER.
Unions created the day to honor the contributions of all workers – union and nonunion – to our economic and social life. It’s especially important now when corporatists and political thugs are attacking American workers like never before. Do you REALLY believe that teachers caused the Wall Street crash in 2008? Really? Do you REALLY believe that abolishing unions will fix everything that’s wrong with the economy? Really?
Today, our unions are still fighting for our families while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Party, and others are trying to destroy them. They’re not only trying to destroy unions. They’re coming for you next. Unions made our lifestyle possible. If you want to keep it, then support our unions.
No one questions the right and wisdom of business owners sticking together to support their interests, but many employers are outraged when their employees do the same thing. There are chambers of commerce, business owners’ associations, trade associations, and all sorts of groups actively promoting business interests to the government and the public. Yet they don’t want workers to have those same rights, and will often stoop to illegal tactics to break the unions. Unions represent the common interests of their members – and all workers – to the business owners, the government, and the public.
As President John F. Kennedy said,
“The American labor movement has consistently demonstrated its devotion to the public interest. It is, and has been, good for all America. Those who would destroy or further limit the rights of organized labor–those who cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization of the unorganized–do a disservice to the cause of democracy.”
I’ve marched with my husband and Iron Workers Local 3 in every Pittsburgh Labor Day parade since 1982, and I’ve always had a wonderful time. It’s second only to Christmas in our family. So join us at the parade on Monday, and bring your family.
It begins at 10:00 A.M. and travels from the Civic Arena to the United Steelworkers building on the Boulevard of the Allies. Participating groups begin to assemble at about 8:30.
If you belong to a union, find out where to meet your group. If not, then come to watch. Wave to your friends and neighbors from every occupation. See your teachers, your mail carrier, your bus driver, the local hotel and restaurant staff, TV and radio personalities, news reporters, employees at our health care facilities, and the construction workers who erect our buildings, and say “thank you”.
And on this of all days, remember.
WE ARE ONE.
For more information:
- Labor Unions: Myths and Facts
- Watch Out America! They’re Coming For You Next
- AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s 2011 Labor Day message
- AFL-CIO – This site has links to all of its member unions
- Allegheny County Labor Council
- Change to Win
- Industrial Workers of the World
- Your own union Web site – Try Goooooooooogle
- Pittsburgh’s Labor History