When America was born, there was nothing resembling unions, not as we know them today. It was illegal for workers to strike or prevent others from working. In 1806, a small group of journeyman shoemakers put that to the test and were convicted of criminal conspiracy.
The first fledgling union was the New York Workingmen’s Party which was formed in 1829 and disappeared a year later. Through the next 80 years, workers fought for higher wages and better hours. There were riots, murders, vandalism and battles, all of which led to The American Federation of Labor forming in 1886. Headed by Samuel Gompers, the AFL fought for shorter hours, higher wages, safer working conditions and more respect for workers. State and federal legislatures finally got the picture and began to pass bills in support of labor’s goals in the early 20th century.
Even as labor made strides forward, laissez-faire thinking still held strong. It took until 1914’s Clayton Antitrust Act before unions were acknowledged as lawful organizations and that strikes, boycotts and picketing were legal. Franklin Roosevelt’s Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 encouraged collective bargaining, set maximum hours, wage standards and prohibited child labor.
Through the post-WWII years, the turbulent 1960s and into the 21st century, unions have been the bulwark between workers and those who would exploit them. The efforts by current-day Republicans to destroy unions are driven by corporations who seek to get the most work for the least amount of pay. Unions like AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME and APWU are still the front line against worker exploitation. Right now, the focus is on the minimum wage, but we must remain vigilant as the oligarchy would love to have slaves again.
These quotes remind us why unions are important and why working Americans should support them:
20. This is the spirit that is back of all the great struggles of the workers to improve their working conditions. Liberty and freedom for collective bargaining is what they want and what they must have.— Mary Anderson
19. Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.— Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis
18. The role of a labor union is to ensure that the balance is not tipped in favor of the employer when employees do not receive wages and benefits commensurate with their contribution.— William Burrus
17. The history of America has been largely created by the deeds of its working people and their organizations–there is scarcely an issue that is not influenced by labor’s organized efforts or lack of them.— William Cahn, Labor historian
16. Every advance in this half-century–Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another–came with the support and leadership of American Labor.— Jimmy Carter
15. Labor Unions are the leading force for democratization and progress.— Noam Chomsky
14. The laboring classes constitute the main part of our population. They should be protected in their efforts peaceably to assert their rights when endangered by aggregated capital, and all statutes on this subject should recognize the care of the State for honest toil, and be framed with a view of improving the condition of the workingman. – Grover Cleveland, Accepting the Democratic nomination for New York governor, 1882
13. With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men.— Clarence Darrow
12. If you go to the city of Washington, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of congress, and mis-representatives of the masses claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad that I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks.— Eugene V. Debs
11. The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor.— Thomas R. Donahue
10. We couldn’t see things with the eyes of 1962. We saw them with the eyes of 1905 through about 1917. Well, we certainly never heard of such a thing and we never thought it would be possible, that there would be social security or unemployment insurance… Also, we never heard of vacations with pay. We never heard of vacations, let alone vacations with pay. We never heard of seniority as it is understood today. There were no pensions for retirement of workers.— Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
9. Our movement is of the working people, for the working people, by the working people. . . . There is not a right too long denied to which we do not aspire in order to achieve; there is not a wrong too long endured that we are not determined to abolish.— Samuel Gompers
8. The story of the labor movement needs to be taught in every school in this land…. America is a living testimonial to what free men and women, organized in free democratic trade unions, can do to make a better life. We ought to be proud of it.—Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, 1977 speech before the Minnesota AFL-CIO Convention
7. Although it is true that only about 20 percent of American workers are in unions, that 20 percent sets the standards across the board in salaries, benefits and working conditions. If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions. One thing that corporations do not do is give out money out of the goodness of their hearts.— Molly Ivins
6. Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.— John F. Kennedy
5. Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if Labor had not first existed. Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.— Abraham Lincoln, First State of the Union address, 1861
4. The basic goal of labor will not change. It is — as it has always been, and I am sure always will be — to better the standards of life for all who work for wages and to seek decency and justice and dignity for all Americans.— George Meany
3. The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement traditionally has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.— A. Philip Randolph
2. It is to the real advantage of every producer, every manufacturer and every merchant to cooperate in the improvement of working conditions, because the best customer of American industry is the well-paid worker.— Franklin D. Roosevelt
1. As it has over the decades, the union movement stands for the fundamental moral values that make America strong: quality education for our children, affordable health care for every person—not just some—an end to poverty, secure pensions and wages that enable families to sustain the middle-class life that has fueled this nation’s prosperity and strength. Union members and other working family activists don’t just vote our moral values—we live them. We fight for them, day in, day out. Our commitment to economic and social justice propels us and everything we do.— John Sweeney, November 2004
The history of the labor movement is one of sacrifice, determination and loyalty. This Labor Day, remember the men and women who gave their lives so that Americans can work in safety for a decent wage.