I have never been a member of a union, but all the other members of my family have been. My grandfather was an organizer with the Boot and Shoe Worker’s Union here in St. Louis, a city known for its Blues, Shoes, and Booze. He made enough money working at the shoe factory to raise five kids and put one of them through college.
My mom was a member of the Electrical Worker’s Union for 45 years until she retired. She worked at the same factory the whole time. It’s where she met my father. All my uncles on both sides of the family worked there as well as my two brothers. I was the only one who didn’t.
Back in my grandfather’s day working conditions at the factories were a lot tougher than they are today. After the Civil War when the industrial age was just beginning, capitalism in this country took an ugly turn. In the beginning, workers for the factories were hard to come by. Most of the young men stayed on the farm for most of their lives. So the factory owners had to pay a good wage and hand out good benefits to attract them. The early employees not only got a good living wage, but they also got a free house built for them and a guaranteed job for the rest of their lives.
But then greed raised its ugly head. There was suddenly a mass entrance of employees from foreign countries and slaves from the south. Suddenly, the factory owners had more workers than they could throw a stick at. They thought: “Why pay decent wages and built houses for our employees when we can have them work for practically free since there are so many of them?”
So the factory owners became like the slave masters of old. All they cared about was profit and nothing else. This lasted until the late 18th century when the unions started to form. The factory owners didn’t like the employees forming unions and rising up against them. They hired corporate thugs like the Pinkertons to crack heads. A lot of people even died from the violence.
Then , in the middle of a long, bloody strike in 1894, congress passed the first national holiday to honor the working men and women. There were much festivities and a national parade. Labor Day was born.
According to the St. Louis Daily News: “On June 28, 1894, the United States Congress designated the first Monday of each September as Labor Day. Labor Day is the creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to honoring the social and economic advances brought about by the American worker. The very existence of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations is the result.”
Although unions were essential back at the turn of the 1900’s, today they have lost considerable bargaining power. More and more union and manufacturing jobs have been lost overseas. Now non-union service jobs make up moist of the economy in the United States. And as manufacturing and the unions have gotten weaker, I think that we as a country are poorer for it.