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.
Some always struggled to retain the minimal gains they made; domestic and agricultural workers, for example, always endured harsh conditions even after the progress of the labour movement, despite a fight for improvements. California just passed a law mandating access to fresh water for farm labourers, for example, because evidently this needed to be spelled out. The fact that many workers in these environments are undocumented immigrants has made it even harder for them to advocate for themselves and join up with other organisers, because they live in a state of constant fear and an awareness that speaking out could lead to deportation.
As Sarah Jaffe points out, a shifting American workplace landscape has changed the face of work for many of us:
Working people used to expect to have a stable job with health benefits and a retirement plan, a job they’d keep for most of their lives. Now, though, workers bounce from job to job, employers have slowly clawed back most of the benefits they used to enjoy, manufacturing mostly happens overseas, and more and more jobs are low-wage service positions, without benefits and with high turnover — jobs in which the worker has little protection from an abusive boss.
In her interview with labour organiser Ai-Jen Poo, she talks about the strides domestic workers, who have always dealt with these kinds of conditions, have taken in recent years to protect themselves and strengthen their position in relation to their employers. As people wake up to the fact that their rights have been radically abridged, they may be turning to domestic workers for pointers on how to regain the rights previous generations fought so hard for, and thanks to a growing knowledge of the fact that we’re all in this together, Poo points out that we may see unity between different groups of workers all fighting to protect each other.
We could see a paradigm shift in US workplaces that finally addresses the radical changes the economy has undergone since the great upsurge of labour organising in the industrial era, and the fights for agricultural workers in the 1960s and 1970s. We need organising for the knowledge economy, something organisers never imagined at the turn of the 20th century, and we need organising that unites workers across different fields and experiences, because we do have common needs and goals.
Together, the 99% have the power to create and retain radical change in the workplace, but it’s not going to be an easy fight, and the hardest part of it may be maintaining the gains we make. Prior generations made the mistake of entering a state of complacency about labour rights, and we can’t allow that to happen again.
Photo Credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University.