Labor Day happened one week ago—September 7, 2012. For me Labor Day is a very significant tradition in our society. The Labor Movement, from its inception was birthed from sacrificial actions of many people. This first has to be viewed in the light of management bias towards unions which often led to violence. Labor brought about legislation for the five day week, the minimum wage, acted as a check and balance on management’s potential discriminatory behavior as it related to workers, collective bargaining with management, advocacy for the worker, minimum wage, just to name a few.
If you’ve ever seen the film Gangs of New York you learn much about the early stirrings in our nation regarding unions. In the film, one major group is the Nativists (the film tells the story of the Irish who had come to New York City and the next generation who were born here. It’s common knowledge that there were many Irish who were hired by the police department. So the police were a major component of keeping new immigrants from Ireland from getting jobs, and the Nativists contra posed them as well. The huge riot and blood bath in the film was as a result of this employment and political conflict.
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois (a heavily unionized state), unions were very familiar, and visibly in front of the people of Chicago and the media. In fact, the older I got, I found it hard to believe that there was a time when unions didn’t exist. There were criminals who manipulated the unions for what they could get out of the union, but this doesn’t negate all the positive changes in the workplace that unions advocated for. In this view, we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
The South doesn’t have the same collective memory of unions as does the north. After all, it was the South that didn’t want to give up slavery or Jim Crow laws. Unions meant bringing together diverse people to achieve goals that were mutual, and alliances that would strengthen all union members. So this would “fly in the face of” of Southerners who didn’t want to mix in any way, much less unions where non-whites would have just as much of a voice as did whites. Unions are a metaphor for many who were disadvantage no matter what their ethnicity was.
For example I was fired by the regional MHMR in this city, but there was no union to support me and back me up in my claims to the Texas Workforce Commission; I decidedly felt that the TWC was more supportive to employers than employees. The end of the story, however, was that my ex-employer used the reason for my termination as misconduct and held to this through one EEOC case of discrimination and three appeal hearings. The TWC said they were right until the last hearing where I had employed an attorney to represent me; she proved that the real issue was that my ex-company knew I had a disability and didn’t implement ‘reasonable accommodations’ in the workplace.
After approximately eighteen months, TWC ruled in my favor and overturned all previous decisions that had been made prior to that point in time, and I received all back benefits I would have received had I been receiving Unemployment Benefits. Most of the time I felt hopeless and that my appeals were useless and never would go anywhere. I felt the cards were stacked against me, and I had a lot of anger and blame around this. I was gratified that once in a while the system does work, and work for the ‘dude on the street.’
There’s one more part to this blog: it’s the story of Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta and the emergence of the United Farm Workers union. At that time migrant farm workers lived in deplorable conditions that were non-hygienic, infested with insects, with no running water, but with plenty of dangerous insecticides to which farm workers were exposed. Their wages were about ten dollars a day.
The United Farm Workers Union began in Delano, California in 1962 in the midst of the Civil Rights Era. Another consortium called the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO (led by Delores Huerta), during a boycott and a strike of workers who picked grapes, the National Farm Workers Union (led by Cesar Chavez) became the United Farm Workers Union). Growers were hiring scabs and strike breakers, resisting and opposing the unionizing forcers. On August 22, 1966 the two unions combined into the United Farm Workers Union (www.ufw.org).