Labor Day, Trade Unions, and My Buddy Jack

Let me tell you about my friends Diane and Jack, and why I consider Labor Day one of America’s most important holidays.

Jack is a journeyman ironworker, currently working in New York City on the 9/11 memorial site at Ground Zero.  Diane, along with their three children, lives in Wisconsin, where they moved a few years ago because they couldn’t afford the high cost of living in New York, and because one of their children has special needs that simply weren’t being addressed.  So for large parts of the year, Jack gets on a plane, flies a thousand miles away from his family, and literally rebuilds America.  Diane is trying to get into social work as a means to give back to her community some of the assistance and guidance she and her family received as NYC expatriates – basically, helping to identify families in need of assistance, and providing counseling and guidance for where to find the assistance that best suits their needs.  I’m not trying to wrap them in the American flag too tightly here, but these are the sort of folks that build good communities.

Jack’s a member of a trade union for ironworkers.  The union taught him everything from knots to crane operator hand signals to rigging – even how to spot terrorist activity.  This is important, because according to this 2009 census of fatal occupational injuries ( ), structural metalworking is the sixth most dangerous job in America today.  It had been number four, but thanks in large part to advances in safety equipment and training (pushed for heavily by trade unions), it’s becoming safer.  It’s still dangerous, though:  The fatal injury rate for structural metalworkers is 30.3 (per 100,000 fulltime workers).  That’s still a little better than nine times the national average of 3.3.  Office and administrative support, by the way, clocks in at a rate of about 0.5.

Along with making sure Jack and his coworkers are provided with the equipment and training they need to keep them safe, the union also helps manage ‘fringe benefits’ like health care, a special unemployment fund, and vacation pay.  Since Jack, like most of his colleagues, doesn’t work for a single company but instead picks up jobs at a union hall, he winds up working for a lot of different companies on a lot of different projects.  This would be a logistical nightmare if he relied on the different companies he works for to manage his benefits, so how it works in a nutshell is that the money that the employer would normally pay to benefits providers (like insurance companies), they instead pay to the benefits management team in the union, who make it all happen.  Occasionally, and especially lately, the economic downturn and associated lack of work means that he has to fall back on the union unemployment fund, but another big benefit of Jack’s union membership is the community it creates:  true brothers in arms.  Sure, self-reliance is expected, but Jack’s union brothers would never let one another go hungry.

There has been a lot of bad press and debate over unions lately, with many claiming that they are an artifact of a bygone era and no longer necessary.  Make no mistake – Jack, and the millions of industrial workers like him, would not be anywhere near as safe and fairly compensated as they are now if not for the ongoing efforts of trade unions.  If safety training and benefits management were left to the companies employing the workers, cut corners and ghoulish cost-saving measures would be the order of the day.  Jack’s training is handled by an organization that has as its first priority his safety – after all, if he is injured or worse, he can’t work, and no workers means no union.  However, a company need only satisfy legal bare minimums on safety equipment and training – after all, if a worker gets hurt or killed, they can always hire someone else.  Trade unions keep workers safe, compensated, and trained.

In fact, trade unions – or more precisely, the collective bargaining power they represent – are responsible for Labor Day becoming an American holiday.  Back in 1894, President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a national holiday.  Designed to honor the workers whose labors built this nation from the ground up – and also to help smooth relations with organized labor in the wake of the disastrous Pullman Strike ( ) , the first Monday in September was set aside, and the holiday was adopted by every state in the Union.  These days, Labor Day parades have fallen out of fashion in many cities, and you don’t often hear speeches by local politicians unless there’s an election coming up.  Labor Day has sort of fallen by the wayside and been turned more into a signpost marking the end of summer and the beginning of football season.

Chances are, most of you reading this work in an office somewhere, and probably even get Labor Day as a paid holiday.  Jack doesn’t.  He usually takes it off anyway, dipping into his vacation time to do so, and enjoys the parades and the barbecues.  There’s a certain irony in the fact that the folks whom Labor Day was intended to honor have to cut into their vacation time to attend their own parade, while office workers and other folks who enjoy the yield of laborers and tradesmen don’t.

This is not to say you shouldn’t enjoy the day off, or even the whole weekend.  Hard work is not the sole provenance of industrial and construction workers, after all.  Simply spare a thought for the people this holiday is really about, and reflect on how you’ve benefitted from their efforts.

Happy Labor Day, everybody.

(Names changed to protect the privacy of my friends.)