A man who served in World War II came back to Cleveland and returned to his old job as a machine tool grinder. The post-war economy was booming, but the veteran was stuck with a small wage, the same wage he had left almost 2 years before. He and some other workers approached the president of the company to ask for a raise. No, he couldn't afford to give raises, the president said.
So the veteran talked with another veteran who worked beside him, and they decided that what their factory needed was a union to represent them. They talked it up with the other workers. Some were opposed. They thought that they should be grateful for whatever the boss gave them, and that in "the old country" they would be tossed into the street for even asking.
But others thought that a union would be a good thing. They thought that together they could make their voices heard. So they bargained for a union. After many months of negotiation, the president of the company signed an agreement with the union.
There was only one thing he asked: that the two men who had first campaigned for it be fired. And they were. For six months the veteran drove a taxi in Cleveland to try to meet the bills.
Finally, the union he had helped organize decided to test its strength. They negotiated for the two men to get their jobs back. For many years the two men were elected President and Vice-President of that local factory union.
They were just ordinary men. Maybe only a few hundred people who belonged to that factory union even remember them, or how they organized that factory back in 1948, but every Labor Day those men walked proudly in a parade with the banner that announced the name of their affiliated union, the one they had helped to organize.
The better wages they bargained for, the benefits they negotiated, improved the lives of the men and women who worked there. Their families lived better lives too. Even the office force benefited from the factory union-although their wages were lower than the union wages, the idea of the office organizing into a union also convinced the president of the company that he needed to raise the office worker's wages, too. So even those who opposed unionization eventually benefited from it.
For over 120 years organized labor has marched to show their strength in unity. It was in 1882 that Peter McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, suggested a national holiday to honor working people.
That September, the first Labor Day parade took place in New York City. Organized labor campaigned to make it a national holiday, and in 1894 President Grover Cleveland signed into law a bill establishing the first Monday in September as Labor Day.
For many years the union movement was seen as socialistic, communistic, anarchistic. The idea of collective bargaining brought a fear to mill owners and coal mine owners and railroad owners and factory owners.
A single worker was just a single worker, and subject to the good or bad will of management, but just as in the union of the single states of America into one United States of America, strength came from the union of many workers into a single bargaining unit.
Many of the benefits of the work force of this country were brought about by the strength and voice of the union movement. The early fears that such an "anarchistic" group would destroy America have faded.
A decent wage and shorter work week, safety measures, and a host of other improvements to the working men and women's condition have become instead the hallmark of America.
We tend to forget sometimes what bloody confrontations took place in mining towns, factories and farmlands when union organizing clashed with management.
We tend to forget that the paycheck stub reflects not only the sweat of the person who earned it, but the unknown and unseen others who resisted arrest, had sit-ins and lock-outs, protested, walked picket lines, were knocked down and bloodied, but who stood up to be counted so that others could have a better life and greater rewards for their labor.
So this Labor Day, as the American flag comes toward you, look behind the flowing stars and stripes...can't you see the faint outline of thousands of marchers materializing between the glare of the sun and the dust of the road?
They lead the way for the flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters marching today. We should remember their struggles and their dreams.
They've paid their dues.
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