I’m working this Labour Day, as are many others, including my fellow freelancers (making up 30% of the workforce, baby!), but a lot of you, including our lovely Alyssa, have the day off. This three-day weekend is a time of ridiculous small-town parades (okay, maybe just in my small town) and barbecues for those who don’t have to head to work, but it’s more than that; we need to remember to put the labour in Labour Day, because people fought, and died, to get us the kinds of workplace protections many take for granted. And that fight is far from over.
It wasn’t that long ago in the United States that brutal conditions were the norm in workplaces; the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a little over 100 years ago, and it became a major organising and mobilising event. 146 workers, including an eleven-year-old girl, perished in the fire, which drew attention to the atrocious environment in industrial workplaces. Long before Triangle, workers were agitating for protections we may think of as pretty basic, like not being locked into the workplace for 12 hours, having time off for breaks, and not being abused by supervisors.
In the process of breaking up protests, police routinely used violence, and hired thugs beat labour organisers, sometimes to death. Organisers were falsely imprisoned, stalked by police, and intimidated in attempts to silence them. They persisted through the suppression of their efforts to bring us the labour protections we enjoy today, but in recent years, we’ve seen a rapid erosion of those protections, and a slow creep back to poor conditions for workers.