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Monday, September 03, 2007

Commentary: Labor Day 2007 Thoughts

Labor Day dates back to the 1880s and was originally founded as a means to give a day of rest to the working people. It was placed in early September as a means distance it on the calendar from the more radical celebrations on May 1. President Grover Cleveland feared that such a date in May could become a commemoration of the Haymarket Riots in Chicago in May of 1886.

In modern days, Labor Day is typically seen as the end of summer and a day of recognition for working people.

It is also a reminder to many the sacrifices and struggle for the rights of working people that have taken place over the last 120 plus years from the fight for 40 hour work week,to the fight for the livable wage and safe working conditions. Many forget now that strikes and protests were often met with violent resistance from the management in coordination from the law. A strike meant replacement workers, violent repression, and risk not only of wages but life and blacklisting.

It is within these contexts that we must recognize the true nature of the struggle for the rights of working people in this country. Our standard of living and middle class lifestyle that people in this country strive to achieve and some take for granted were forged on the blood, sweat and toil of early labor movements.

What I have found interesting and disturbing in my coverage of the Sodexho Worker's struggle is the degree to which anti-unionism is prevalent even in supposedly liberal Davis. For many, there is a clear recognition that labor has played an immense role in the history of this country, however for some, their place is one of the past and not the present. For many the fight for living wages today is not paramount to the fight for safe working environments, the forty hour week, or good wages of the past. Many do not see the threat to turn back many of these protections as equivalent to that struggle. Many do not see that the fight for affordable health care for all, the fight to ensure that each person has access to that health care is not every bit as pertinent today as the struggles of the past were.

But finally and most importantly, I do not think enough people understand what organized labor provides the average worker today. I've lived in a union household all of my life. In recent years, I have seen how poorly many workers are treated by their supervisors even today. I have seen the quality of life struggles that have ensued even with the protections built in through the collective bargaining process, and it is clear to me that without the protection of labor unions, many workers and people would be living very difficult lives and be mistreated by their supervisors without recourse. It is clear to me that the struggle for the living wage and health care is alive and well even in 2007.

It was only last year that Davis City Councilmember Lamar Heystek introduced a living wage ordinance for large employers in the city of Davis only to be literally shouted down by his colleagues Don Saylor and Stephen Souza. These are two men who right now are attempting to vie for union support even as they opposed living wage in Davis and supported notorious anti-union big box company Target. Mr. Saylor has repeatedly attempted to get back into the good graces of labor with his support for various health care proposals. Mr. Souza has yet to issue a statement of support for the Sodexho workers, Mr. Saylor's support was blatantly half-hearted at best.

However, Presidential Candidate John Edwards summed up the need for supporting labor with his Labor Day weekend statement:
"Labor has been the most important anti-poverty movement in American history and the best tool for strengthening our middle class and helping build One America... I am looking forward to spending the weekend visiting with workers and caucus goers to discuss my plans to build One America where working families have a chance to get ahead, guarantee quality, affordable health care to every American and end the war in Iraq."
And so today, on Labor Day, we need to renew our commitment to pass universal health care so that all Americans have access to the greatest health care coverage in the world. We need to stand in continued to support for strong wages and good working conditions for all. But we need to act locally as well. Councilmember Heystek needs support in his continued fight for the living wage. The city of Davis needs to ensure good living wages for all of its employees, including those who have been outsourced. And we need to stand by in our commitment to the Sodexho Workers as they struggle to become university employees. This is not a novel issue, we are talking about the standard of living and health care for many people who live in our community. On this day, we need to stand with those people and tell those in the position of authority and power that when they impact the wages for one, they are hurting us all.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting