By James Haslam
When we celebrate Labor Day, we celebrate the contributions of the hard-working families who get up every day to make society run. Postal workers deliver our mail, iron workers construct our buildings, firefighters and health care workers save our lives, educators teach our children, retail clerks pour our coffee with a smile, and countless other people spend most of their waking lives collectively making society happen.
Labor Day is also a time to celebrate victories won by the labor movement: the weekend, the eight-hour workday, employer-funded health care, a more humane workplace, and Social Security. As these gains erode, the need for a new labor movement based in our communities, workplaces, and homes is increasingly important.
Too many of us work in unhealthy and demeaning jobs and receive too little in return. At work, we leave our constitutional rights at the door. The values we cherish most as Vermonters — freedoms of speech and assembly, a fair trial — apply at work only when we organize and win as workers. Unions are not only important for those workers who negotiate a contract with their employer. When nurses at Fletcher Allen Health Care organized a union and bargain wage increases, their peers at other hospitals often get big raises as a result.
But it’s more than that. The corporate system has its own vision for society. It thrives when we are insecure, disposable, interchangeable, caught up in a war of all against all. Native Vermonter and union activist Pattie Russell knows this all too well. In her 18 years of working at Burlington’s Specialty Filaments plant, Russell’s neck was injured by a steel pipe, and she was also forced to undergo shoulder surgery from repetitive motions. For her hard work and dedication, Russell was offered a mere two weeks of severance pay when a venture capital firm decided to close her plant, eliminating more than 100 good jobs. Russell and her union joined with the Vermont Workers’ Center to wage a campaign to fight back and win a fair severance.
Many unionized manufacturing jobs are leaving Vermont — affecting 8,000 families in the past four years alone â€” and are mostly being replaced with low-wage, mostly non-union service and retail jobs.
A strong labor movement is essential to the health of a society. The labor movement has its own vision for a society based on solidarity, civil rights, healthy families, and sustainable communities. A strong labor movement also looks beyond its own self-interest, to the rights of workers throughout the world. This is why the national AFL-CIO voted unanimously to bring the troops home as quickly as possible from Iraq at their July convention, and why the Vermont Workers Center opposed the Iraq War before it began. We support our Iraqi counterparts who are organizing unions to improve their communities and risk their lives to democratize the new Iraq.
This past year in Vermont, we saw how the labor movement can be dedicated to broader social uplift. The Vermont AFL-CIO, Vermont-NEA, and Vermont State Employees Association joined others to help lead the fight for health care as a basic right and for a publicly financed universal health care system. The Fletcher Allen nurses and other health care unions are working together on a special campaign to create safe staffing laws to improve conditions for patients and nurses at health care facilities throughout Vermont.
This Labor Day, let’s honor the fact that there are people in Vermont and around this country in the labor movement dedicated to fighting for the rights of all working families.
The stakes are high, and we all need to get involved. So we’re asking you not only to join us to celebrate Labor Day, but to help us create the improved society that we all deserve.
James Haslam is the director of the Vermont Workers’ Center/Jobs With Justice