“Which Side Are You On?” is a song written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the wife of an organizer for the United Mine Workers. “It seems like it’s illegal to fight for the union anymore,” is a lyric that feels very current. Even the right to collectively bargain is under attack from state governments. This push against unions is raising questions about basic worker rights.
Unions are a very important part of American history, yet this topic is rarely taught in schools. Labor Day is a time to reflect upon all the gains won by the labor movement for all workers and why we have the right to be proud of who we are, what we stand for, and our history. When the song, “Which Side Are You On?” was written, the Congress of Industrial Organizations organized millions of skilled and unskilled workers in America’s factories. During that time of the Great Depression, the Transport Workers Union was organized in New York City.
The accomplishments of the labor movement are often forgotten. The union movement was dedicated to improving working conditions and creating a better standard of living for workers. This includes the eight-hour day, which provided time for parents to be with their children, as well as child labor laws. It was our union movement that brought weekends and holidays as days off for most workers. Health care and pensions, so critical for working families, were gained by unions through struggle.
Before we blame unions for the bad economy, let us consider who isn’t getting blamed. Think about the millions of dollars in executive salries and the billions stolen by Wall Street financiers. Unlike skilled workers, these fat cats create, produce and build nothing.
It is time for unions to claim their role in the new economy. Union leaders must understand technological innovations, global economics and how management operates to serve their membership. Many unions provide training and apprenticeships to develop the skills needed to keep America’s industries working and make our nation competitive in the global economy.
Unions are an important part of American history. Labor Day is not just a reason for a holiday ale. It is time to reflect upon all the gains won by the Labor movement and why we have the right to be proud of what we all stand for. So, if you go to the mall this Labor Day holiday, reflect for a moment how you got this day off and who got it for all of us.
John Johnson Jr. is president of Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents more than 5,000 SEPTA workers.