Labor

To labor
means to work – but labor implies a bit more than just to work – it suggests
working with focus on a given task for a longish period of time. Some labor is
physical, some is more mental and some is creative. Almost all labor involves
someone besides you. Probably your labor will benefit you also because you will
(I assume) receive some type of payment for what you do or it will save you
money in some way. Additionally when we labor we hope to get some personal satisfaction
from what we do.

Obviously
there are some caveats to this. People who work long hours for little pay under
adverse conditions get little satisfaction from their work, it may affect their
health, and they may still live in conditions of poverty or even squalor.

There was an
excellent article in the Sunday Post
Standard
, a central New York newspaper, showing conditions for workers
early on in the history of some of our factories, factories that improved and
became mainstays of Syracuse business, such as the Syracuse China company. This
article speaks of times before labor unions were formed, 100 years ago. You can
find this article in the Opinion section for The Post Standard for Sunday, August 31st, 2014. The
article is called The Evils of Syracuse’s
Early Factories
, pg. B-1). This article also includes a photo showing a
chaotic early work environment for workers at the Syracuse china pottery. Here’s
what the article said about tuberculosis resulting from the conditions at the
pottery: “Dr. H.B. Doust told of 2000 cases of tuberculosis in Syracuse, many
acquired ‘in dusty work rooms by stone cutters, by men working near emery
wheels and by potters.’” A number of other unhealthy work conditions in other
industries nearby are also noted in this article.  Steel was made in Syracuse too. Toxins
created in this process often filled the air. There were no safeguards for our
ancestors.

I’m sure you
can see that there were excellent reasons why workers organized into unions or
joined unions. Without some kind of universal pressure on owners there was
little incentive to be humane. Those employers who might have been so inclined
were encouraged by their peers to hang tough, and I bet that encouragement
often seemed more like coercion.

Employers
did not accept the formation of unions happily. There was lots of pushback,
sometimes brutal and damaging. The interesting thing is that, once employers
had to stop battling and accept labor unions there were many unforeseen
benefits. Employers and employees became prosperous together, employee
productivity improved, and bosses and workers got along better. The relationship
became more civilized and employers could see the richness that was added to
the lives of their employees.

We hear
people disparage unions today, as if they were a bad thing, as if they made
such selfish demands that employers ran for the exits. But for many years it
was not like this. Unions created an atmosphere that allowed both employers and
employees to flourish, and this spirit spilled over into our communities
creating energy and progress.

We no longer
have all of the factories that we had when unions were created. Our factories
have gone to China and Indonesia and Vietnam, places where there are no labor
unions. We are aware that employees are once again being underpaid and
overworked and that safety conditions may often be sacrificed to the bottom
line. These workers may not be able to unionize because they live and work in
totalitarian states. However, having a steady income will still bring progress,
although perhaps a bit slower than in America and perhaps at workers’ expense
to a greater degree. Eventually we will most likely see some structures emerging
that will allow workers to improve their salaries and their working conditions.
It is almost inevitable.

I will never
support the current attack on labor unions, either private or public. Even
though we have lost so many of our factories we should hang on to our unions.
We no longer even work for the people who are trying to union bust, but
someone, and probably someone in our own family, fought bloody battles to
unionize – our ancestors did that. Employers still watch their bottom line and they
don’t like cutting into their profits even with all the proof that treating
employees well improves profits and morale and quality and public health.

Republicans
are wrong to want to dismantle labor unions and it would be self-destructive to
let them. If we are going to remain a capitalist nation, we must also remain a
nation that keeps unions alive.  Laborers
are wiser than their employers because they realize that being terribly wealthy
in an otherwise poverty-stricken world would really be quite unsatisfactory and
would actually just be a return to conditions we have struggled for centuries
to leave behind.

By Nancy Brisson

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