On this Labor Day, it is important to think about the work we do and how and why we do it, and the importance of organized labor. Without organized labor, we would not have
- The eight-hour day or the forty-hour week
- Safer working conditions
- Minimum wage
- Child Labor Laws
- Health and pension benefits
- The right to collective bargaining
There are more benefits than these, but these are some of the big ones. Without organized labor, workers would be at the mercy of employers who would/could exploit them. Union membership has decreased in the last twenty-five years. Partly, I suspect, because many workers have begun to take things like the eight-hour day for granted.
However, times are changing. The labor picture today looks quite different from what it looked like in 2000. After the recession of 2008, as unemployment has begun to improve, the country is seeing a big increase in part-time workers, who are generally not unionized, and who, consequently, do not have the same protections that many full-time workers have. There have been, in recent weeks, many news stories about the difficulty part-time shift workers face because of the irregularity of the work. A waitress may work the lunch shift and then be called back to work to serve the dinner shift if a restaurant gets busy, or a worker may be told that she must close the business but must be back to open the next morning. This inconsistency puts real strain on families, on child care arrangements, on sleep patterns. Some businesses are beginning to understand these strains. The August 14 New York Times reported that once the business learned of the difficulty its inconsistent shifts caused workers, Starbucks has begun investigating ways to improve its practices. This is not enough.
What work means is also changing in this country and the world. With a factory job, someone goes to work and comes home. There is a clear delineation between work and not work, but many jobs today spill over from the workplace to the non-workplace. Teachers take work home and always have. Telecommuters often work at home. How does one close the door on a workspace? Or how does one stop thinking about a puzzling work problem? If an answer comes when one is in the shower, does that mean one is working? How would we form a union of telecommuters? And what would we call “management” if we did? These are serious questions because when work bleeds into “free time” in this way, eventually we are always working. Workers in the United States already work more hours than workers in any other country in the developed world. We have less vacation time. We have less parental leave time. What kind of a labor movement do we need to improve that conditions in which we find ourselves?
I am a proud member of the UAW (United Auto Workers) because I am adjunct faculty member at a small unionized college. The UAW has helped our faculty improve wages, and benefits and has help us conduct difficulty negotiations. I have been part of a negotiating team. The benefits of being unionized are obvious. However, most adjunct college teachers are not union members, and they struggle with very poor pay, with poor working conditions, often having to teach at several institutions just to have enough money to live on, and with no sense of solidarity. Adjunct college teachers are very similar to the shift workers described above, but unlike Starbucks, most colleges and universities that employ them are not looking for ways to improve conditions.
As our work force changes, and as our ideas about work change, we also need to think about how to create solidarity and coherence among workers. Without that, conditions will not improve.