Source: Sherman Publications

Union workers remember historic struggle

by Mary Keck

August 29, 2012

To some, celebrating Labor Day may mean catching candy at a parade or warming up the grill for a backyard barbecue, but for local workers, commemorating Labor Day is about much more.

“I celebrate it as a working man,” said Independence Township firefighter and union member Don Herbert.

When Herbert thinks about Labor Day he remembers, “we’ve come a long way in fairness to workers.”

From his point of view, “the working man has always had to fight for the benefits they’ve got.”

Workers in the United States organized to demand an eight-hour workday and eliminate child labor in the 1800s and early 1900s.

“Low wages and difficult unsafe working conditions were the norm that kept the American workforce enslaved to corporate greed,” explained Pat Carroll of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

States began to recognize the Labor Day holiday in the 1880s because Americans felt laborers needed to be appreciated for their contribution to U.S. prosperity.

Craig Richardson, chair of the local chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), hopes Labor Day still holds the same meaning.

It is an opportunity for people to “reflect on what the unions have accomplished” such as increased safety, improved wages, and working conditions, Richardson said. From his point of view, unions had a significant role in “building the middle class.”

Along with the historic labor movement, when reminded of Labor Day Herbert thinks back to times when “it used to be a chore to find a product made in another country at the store. Now, it’s a chore to find a tag that says ‘made in the U.S.A.’ at the store.”

From Herbert’s point of view, celebrating Labor Day is “a little bittersweet” because so much of manufacturing is done overseas, and “Americans celebrate Labor Day by buying food from somewhere else. I’m a giant American at heart. I’d rather see work done in the U.S.A.”

Richardson is concerned about the present state of America’s workforce too. “With the atmosphere of big business, we have to safeguard what we’ve already earned,” he said.

“In fact in these tough economic times, it is more important than ever that unions and employers develop a strong partnership so companies grow and workers gain from that growth,” said Carroll.

“Labor Unions do not exist to protect the workers that do not want to contribute to the well being of the company they work for,” he added.

Richardson feels unions were a part of the solution to the economic downturn because of their willingness to make concessions, he said. Herbert agrees noting during the economic downturn the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), “gave back raises” and “gave back money in healthcare.”

Although Labor Day means most of us enjoy a three-day weekend, Herbert points out the fire department won’t be closed. “We don’t take the day off,” he said. Instead, firefighters continue to “provide service to the citizens that support us,” Herbert stated.

Carroll plans to celebrate Labor Day “with my brothers and sisters in organized labor walking in the Detroit Labor Day Parade,” he said. Richardson will have a barbecue with his family while remembering the laborers who made his day off possible.