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Penn: Enjoying the weekend? Thank labor

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Labor Day is a unique American holiday, honoring not a famous individual or a historic event, but all of us — average people who go to work daily to build a nation.

The holiday’s roots are historically deep and born from struggle. In post-Civil War America, the 1870s to the early 1900s, deep economic chasms split the nation. The “Gilded Age” saw a few acquire vast fortunes through railroad, shipping, mining, industrial and retail expansion. Fabulous mansions were built and the very wealthy enjoyed every luxury.

These fortunes were built on the backs of everyday people’s labor. For the average person, life was precarious. Employment was unsteady, the workday was 12 or 14 hours long, child labor was rampant and safety conditions were nonexistent. If one was lucky, Sunday was the day off. Demanding change, working people organized politically and economically, attempting to form labor unions to bring democracy to the job.

These efforts were viewed as an affront to the capitalist. The business owner assumed complete control was their right. When workers tried to find a voice, it was often met with mass firings, blacklists, armed guards, local police and sometimes military force.

How did the worker find a voice? They persistently organized, voted and fought for their rights. To recognize workers’ contributions, on Sept. 5, 1882, New York City workers laid down their tools and marched through the city’s streets, demanding recognition.

This sparked a national movement for a workers’ holiday. Oregon was the first state to declare Labor Day in 1887; Illinois followed in 1891. Ironically, the federal holiday legislation was signed on June 28, 1894, just as the Pullman strike and railroad boycott was shutting down the nation.

Bloomington workers enjoyed the new holiday, not only with marches and a parade, but political speeches, balloon accessions, sports contests and dances.

Bloomington-Normal union has trained plumbers, pipe fitters for over a century

It still took decades for labor unions to achieve decent conditions, with many bloody battles, lives lost and sacrifices before child labor became a memory, eight hours the workday and the weekend established.

Despite these gains, some wonder if we are in a new “gilded age,” with a steep divide between the wealthiest and the average family. When workers are designated “managers” or “independent contractors,” the eight-hour day and wage laws often do not apply. According to Gallup polling, 65% of Americans view unions favorably. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2018 study found that 48% of non-union workers would join a union if they could.

Joining and organizing a union is not a management decision. It is a worker's decision, a chance for a democratic voice on the job. We may be a nation of “one person, one vote,” but we don’t have a vote at work. A labor union is a workers’ organization where employees can dialogue.

Herb Eaton began to include new figures in his paintings that he created in the weekend after the 9/11 attacks

Joh Penn is vice president and Midwest regional manager for the Laborers' International Union of North America.

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