We’re Thankful For Labor Unions
Unions like those that built many of our city's most enduring and iconic structures, have also been responsible for winning many of the rights we all enjoy as workers.
This Thanksgiving, amidst the feasting and football, raise a toast to the unsung heroes of working people everywhere: labor unions. With tenacious spirit and tireless effort, these men and women won many hard fought victories that anyone with a job should be grateful for. From the right to a weekend, to ending child labor, to social security and more, their victories are easy to take for granted. But blood was shed and lives were lost to secure these rights. Ready for a gratitude refresher course? Here is a closer look at three reasons to raise a glass to labor unions this Thanksgiving. A more exhaustive list is included in the graphic above.
The 8 Hour Work Day
The 9-5 workday, now a norm, was hard-won through labor struggles. A pivotal moment came on May 1, 1886, when over 300,000 workers went on strike for shorter hours. At that time, manufacturing sector employees frequently worked 100+ hour weeks. This strike escalated into a fierce conflict with police and hired strikebreakers, resulting in many deaths in what became known as the Haymarket Affair. This event was a catalyst for change, leading many companies, including Ford Motor Company, to adopt an 8-hour day. Ultimately, the 40-hour workweek was enshrined nationally with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938.
An End to Child Labor
The idea of sending children into mines or to work on dangerous machinery horrifies people today, but this was common practice until unions put a stop to it. In the late 19th century, figures like Samuel Gompers, the influential president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and workers' advocate "Mother" Jones, spearheaded the fight against the exploitation of children in the workforce. The formation of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in 1904 marked a pivotal moment, uniting disparate forces into a formidable coalition dedicated to eradicating the use of child labor. The efforts of labor unions culminated in the passing of a national minimum working age of 16 with the FLSA.
These rights are just 3 of the many that unions have fought for and won for us all.
Labor unions have long been the vanguard for social security, pioneering the idea in the early 1900s. Their fight intensified during the Great Depression, leading to the Social Security Act of 1935 under FDR's New Deal. Unions didn't just lobby; they took to the streets, striking and rallying public support. The 1934 West Coast longshoremen's strike is a prime example that helped turn the tide of public opinion. Today, unions continue this legacy, fighting to protect Social Security and adapt it to the ever-changing economic landscape and workforce needs.
Thank You, Unions
The rights listed above are just a snapshot, highlighting three of the many victories labor unions have won for workers' dignity and fairness. Thanksgiving is the perfect time to remember that the rights we consider basic weren't just handed to us—they were hard-won, often at a steep and bloody price.
Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.
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