Celebrating Labor

Sarah Carr wrote a review of the book, Beaten Down, Worked Up by Steven Greenhouse. The review was featured in The Washington Post on August 9, 2019. The book tells the history of the labor movement through the 20th century to today—where it’s been and where it needs to go.

I haven’t had a chance to read the book, yet, but my interest was certainly piqued by Carr’s review. The labor movement’s history includes many iconic events and people, such as

  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire;
  • Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, who backed the most labor-friendly portions of the New Deal—social security, unemployment benefits, minimum-wage and overtime laws, and federal laws regulating child labor; 
  • Mary Harris (Mother) Jones, an organizer of the United Mine Workers; 
  • Walter Reuther’s negotiation of the 1950 automakers’ agreement, the “Treaty of Detroit” that expanded provisions for pensions and health care nationally; and
  • The failed air-traffic controllers strike of 1981.

Greenhouse discusses many of the above and more. I was intrigued by the complexities confronting unions in today’s economy. The review talked about the following examples Greenhouse provided.

The Fight for $15, which was a broad-based campaign backed by the Service Employees International Union to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers and allow them to unionize. It resulted in city and state officials raising the minimum wage, but not in unionizing workers.

Changes in the corporate environment and it’s swing from managerial capitalism to investor capitalism which has had a profound effect on workers and unions.  As corporations are pressured to focus on maximizing profits and share price, workers must focus on pushing for campaign finance laws to hep labor-friendly politicians get elected, as one example. Unions, on the other hand, can no longer rely on the old model of savvy organizer underdogs going up against CEO Goliaths.

The history of the labor movement is an important part of human resources and management history. Before organizations had HR professionals to ensure that employees were treated with fairness and respect, it was the unions that fought for workers’ rights.  As we prepare to celebrate Labor Day, remember we are celebrating the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. 

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