By Sean Raycraft
For many years of my life, Labor Day was just a three-day weekend signifying the end of summer. What was a Labor Union? I really had no idea, and they were not particularly relevant to my life. The only time I ever heard about unions was on ESPN when the sportscasters were talking about a strike, whatever that was. The football players wanted a bigger share of the football related income from the NFL. For the most part, I think that many people my age and younger do not really know labor history, what unions are or what they do for working people, and that is really sad.
Over the last few days, I have asked many of my friends why American workers need unions and the Labor movement in 2016 more than previous generations. People from all walks of life responded with their ideas on Union, the Labor movement and what future workers can expect in their work life. Many of my friends work in the Labor movement, and thus have a sophisticated understanding of the issues. Some of my friends have no idea. Others are radical trade unionists, who use terminology I can barely understand when describing the labor movement.
For my part, the Labor movement and my union have become a huge part of my life. When I was younger, I assumed that poor people were poor because they were lazy. I thought that anyone who actually had a job would be just fine, have a car, a decent place to live and could afford to send their kids to college. It was not until I got a union job that I truly understood what the union difference was. After a few years, I earned decent wages, good benefits, paid vacations, sick pay, grievance procedures, a weekly 24 hour minimum guarantee, a defined benefit pension and time and a third on Sundays. At the time, my partner worked at Target in Davis.
Many days, she would come home in tears for any number of reasons. Her boss cut 2 hours off her shift today, and she needed that money. She was sexually harassed by customers or employees and did not feel like she could talk to her bosses about it out of fear of retaliation against her. People who complained to management often had their hours cut, schedules changed or transferred to undesirable jobs. Meanwhile, I had good representation and a strong labor contract negotiated by my union. Today as a journeyman clerk, I make a base hourly wage of 21.43 per hour, before any premiums. Her job at Target and my job at Safeway share mostly the same kinds of duties, only she was paid slightly over minimum wage, with horrible working conditions, unaffordable health care, and no weekly guarantee. That, is the union difference. Sadly, these good, blue collar jobs like mine are becoming rare.
Today, a significant percentage of people in my generation do not have jobs like mine. Instead, they work in the sharing economy. They drive for Uber and Lyft, or more than likely, they drive for both at the same time. They rent out rooms in the place they stay with Airbnb just to help make ends meet. Or they simply have to work two jobs. One guy I work with stocks shelves at night, and then goes door to door selling an organic fresh vegetable delivery service. Not too long ago in our history, hecklers would shout at protestors “get a job!” Unfortunately, advocates and activists still often get heckled with this taunt while protesting, but now I say, “Did you mean get ANOTHER JOB?! Because I already have two!”
I want to address the declining standard of living for working people in America. Too often people forget what Labor Unions have fought for and won for working people in America. Unions have been the political muscle behind every major piece of legislation in the last 100 years. The eight-hour work day, overtime protections (coming soon to farm workers in California!), Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, the federal minimum wage, safety in the work place, end of child labor laws, public education, the weekend, equal pay for equal work laws, pensions and civil rights laws to name a few. These are all public programs most Americans unfortunately take for granted. Unions and social movements are the backbone of progress for workers in this country, and too often people forget those who were murdered by the enemies of progress for working people.
In California, over the last few years there have been major legislative victories for the Labor movement. California now requires three mandatory sick days for nearly all workers. Now the people who touch your food can take a day off when they or their child are ill. This year in May, California became the first state to adopt a $15 minimum wage, phased in over several years. California also adopted a law extending paid maternity leave to six weeks.
I asked a good friend of mine, a former Fight for 15 organizer who has since become the Executive Director of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, about this issue. Here is what he had to say:
“Why do workers need unions in 2016? Workers get a smaller share of the wealth today than when organized Labor was at its peak in the mid 20th century. The exploitative nature of capitalism has fostered an environment that exploits workers and preys on their financial vulnerability. More people working 2-3 jobs, more college educated workers in minimum wage jobs, and less retirement security than the previous generations makes unions more relevant today than in at least 2 generations,” said Fabrizio Sasso.
This hit me really hard. I thought about a co-worker of mine, who is 69, works two jobs and cannot afford to retire. She is fearful she will have to work until the day she dies. I thought about how many of my co-workers who are UCD students, who are trying to work their way through school, and yet they are going to be graduating with $30,000 in debt or more. I think about how they can look forward to jobs that will not pay them as well as the union job they have right now, and I think, there has to be a better way.
Assemblymember and political force of nature Lorena Gonzalez had this to say when asked: “All the good legislation in the world can’t protect you like a good union contract.”
I could go on, but in the interest of brevity, we will move on to the movement part of the labor movement. As many of you know, I have been involved with the Fight for 15 movement for years now. In May, we won the $15 minimum wage in California on Cesar Chavez Day. It is a victory half won for the movement. Low wage workers need 15 and a union. Without the union, wages will be stolen, workers will be intimidated, undocumented workers will be threatened and harassed or terminated just for fighting for their rights. I am excited for the next phase of the Fight for 15, as it will be uniting economic and racial justice movements into one. Unfortunately, I could not get permission to publish the new platform ratified by the Fight for 15 members before the self-imposed publishing deadline.
With that said, come join low wage workers of all kinds on September 12 at 12 pm- 2pm at the State Capitol and you can learn all about it. You will be a part of a historic 35 State day of action which will address racial and economic inequalities in America today.
Labor Day is not merely a marker, denoting the end of summer. It is a day to honor all the labor movement has done for this country, and its workforce, and to recognize that there are political forces which seek to destroy this progress. So, while you are enjoying the extra day off this week, try and remember the people who were murdered so that we could have 8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest, and 8 hours for what we will. The people who fought for public education, and the end of child labor. Remember those who fought for a better world for their children, and ask yourself if you’re willing to do the same. Dr. King famously said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” Happy Labor Day everyone.
Sean Raycraft is a lifelong Davis resident and proud shop steward with UFCW 8