September 2013

Lessons from Our Past Still Serve Us Today

Labor Day and our Directory Issue may seem like strange bedfellows, but both help illustrate part of what the labor movement has meant to you, me, your Iron Worker brothers and sisters and all workers in North America. Many may focus on the wage and benefit packages contained on the Wage Directory that result from our collective bargaining agreements and overlook the process of collective bargaining; the efforts to form and grow the 179 local unions listed within these pages, and the continuing struggle to maintain those rights for generations to come. Labor Day represents that fight, not a victory.

Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, pre-dating the founding of our own International Association. It was a time of brutal working conditions: six-12s the standard workweek; child labor; no holidays, sick days or pensions; and worker safety was unheard of. It was a time when corporate power and excesses were at a peak. Monopolies dominated industries and labor alike. Wages were depressed to the point where workers were paid in company script (money) that could only be spent on housing, goods or services sold by the employer. Most employees owed more than they earned each month.

Intolerable conditions led to strikes met with brutal retaliation from company thugs, the police and even the government. Confrontations have been described as a second “civil war.” Labor Day as a federal holiday was a failed attempt by President Cleveland to gain labor support for a third term after he sent 12,000 federal troops to break the Pullman Car Company strike where at least 13 strikers were killed. The demands of decent wages, an eight-hour workday and the right to organize did not come about until nearly 50 years later. Labor Day represents that fight, not a victory.

The strength of individual workers overcame ethnic and racial diversity to unite in their common plight. They fought to gain bargaining power with their employer, to demand a fair share of the profits their labor helped generate. Everyone worked hard to generate success and profits for the company and reaped a shared benefit as an employee, supervisor, owner or stockholder. It was a model that served our nation, the economy, business and workers well from 1940 until 1980, resulting in a period of the greatest growth of the middle class in our history. As Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, said, “Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.” Since the eighties, that shared equity partnership has been broken. Not between us and our signatory contractors, but by the moneyed interests of Wall Street with their pursuit of unfair profits and higher bonuses at the expense of everyone else, including our own nation’s independence and security.

This history is not only worthy of being remembered on Labor Day, but every day you walk into the workplace, every time you cash your collectively bargained paycheck, each year when you vote and every time you hug your loved ones.

Thank you for helping to build our great union.