I was rooting around the internet and came across an interesting quote attributed to one of the two founders of Labor Day, Peter J. McGuire, who is said to have suggested that a day be set aside for a “general holiday for the laboring classes” to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” The Irish do have a way with words!
Mr. McGuire (left) was general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, both of which are organizations that loom large in America’s working history, having taken stands to protect workers’ rights and insure workers’ benefits. Great ideas are often shared, and Matthew Maguire (right), secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, is also credited with proposing the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Both Maguire and McGuire attended the country’s first Labor Day parade in New York City that year. Both, I suspect, enjoyed a bit of the bitters in celebration, if stereotypes hold true.
Parades, Picnics, and Speeches
The tradition of parades, picnics, and speeches was established from the very beginning, the idea being that even workers and their families deserved a bit of entertainment and amusement. Organizers invited marchers to walk though Manhattan on September, 5, 1882. According to newspaper accounts of that first Labor Day, disaster was averted when the Jewelers Union arrived from Newark with a band, thereby setting the cadence for the marchers.
By the end of the day, over 25,000 people had come together to celebrate, hanging out at Wendell’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and 9th Avenue, and a new tradition was born. Through economic booms and busts, peacetime and World War, racial divides and political ebbs and flows, for 140 years the first Monday in September has remained a day of celebration for workers in America.
The Changing Nature of Work
Sigmund Freud famously said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” His observation applies to all aspects of work, not just the production of goods. We are valued for what we do far more than being valued for who we are. When we are no longer able to produce, we become less valuable.
A separate yet important aspect of valuing the work we do applies to the nature of the work being done. Broadly speaking, workers who produce goods (widgets) tend to have better representation and working conditions than workers who provide services. For example, unions have long existed in the manufacturing and mining sectors, but are still fairly unseen in the services sector (e.g., caregivers, hospitality).
Organizing Labor is Like Herding Cats
No disrespect meant toward cats, but organizing service care workers is incredibly challenging. There is the initial task of just gathering people to identify issues and grievances. Then there is the challenge of naming a leader. Simultaneously, information needs to be pulled together to formalize, educate and, well, organize.
Historically this was done along trade or craft lines, which is how many of today’s unions came into being. As work changed, so did unions. Today in the U.S., there are 57 unions represented under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). It has been the cat wrangler since the two merged in 1955, and continues to undergo change, with the most recent iteration occurring in 2005 when several large unions split away from AFL–CIO and formed the rival Change to Win Federation
According to Wikipedia, the largest unions currently in the AFL–CIO are the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) with approximately 1.7 million members, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), with approximately 1.4 million members, and United Food and Commercial Workers with 1.2 million members.
Workers Who Are Still Not Represented; Work that is Still Not Valued
Caregivers are possibly one of the most essential classes of workers increasingly needed around the world, and not just by aging adults. Here in the U.S., home health aides are a growing industry, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a 37% increase in need by 2026. These workers are, by and large, women, and many are undocumented immigrants.
Having worked with many caregivers who are undocumented, I have found their level of dedication to the people they care for and their demonstrated skill sets exemplary, yet they live with the threat of deportation and experience harassment and poor working conditions without recourse because they lack status as legal workers.
The need for high quality care providers is undeniable. What is lacking is a path forward to insure that these workers are treated with respect and paid fairly. This has traditionally been the job of the union organizer.
Stating the Obvious
The majority of care providers are female. This automatically puts organizing at a disadvantage in terms of pay, hours, and benefits as a gender-pay gap exists in almost every sector of labor, even where unions are already operating.
The work of the caregiver is under-valued. While I assume that all of us want to be treated with dignity and kindness when we are at our most vulnerable, the actual tasks involved (e.g., toileting, bathing, assisting with eating, dressing, and keeping things tidy) rank at the bottom in terms of skilled labor or educational qualifications, and therefore are often paid at or below minimum wage.
People who work at these jobs work in conditions that are poorly monitored if in the private sector, and overly regulated if in the public sector. There is little job security, especially when private contracts are involved and no guarantee of due process if payment is not received or if a person is fired without cause.
Unions May Not Be the Answer, But Something Needs to be Done
While I happen to be a union member, many people I know have strong feelings about the negative aspects of unionization. With that said, the fundamental reason for establishing a union – representation of the worker – cannot be denied when it comes to caregivers.
If ever there was a win-win in the making, establishing a living wage for caregivers, setting rules and regulations for monitoring work environments, coming to terms with how to manage working conditions where both patient safety and caregiver safety are considered along with time off and benefit packages, as well as a path forward to citizenship for these necessary workers, unionizing caregivers is it!
California passed such a law back in 2018. Other states are considering similar legislation. It is now up to union organizers to secure the trust of workers and go about establishing what Messers. McGuire and Maguire set out to do 140 years ago. Celebrate Workers Everywhere!
Happy Labor Day.
One response to “Labor Day is More than Mattress Discounts and Car Deals”
Thank you for this wonderful history lesson. You are such a great writer! What you write is always educational and amusing. Which makes it very user friendly. And how good to know that California has a caregivers union. ElizaLoading…