COMMENTARY: We don’t honor America’s laborers as we should

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UPS employees practiced pickets along Monroe Drive in Dallas on Wednesday, July 12, 2023. UPS employees were preparing to go on strike and have begun staging practice pickets across Texas for a union contract. But the union and UPS announced a deal on July 25. (Shafkat Anowar | Dallas Morning News | TNS)

When we Texans say “Happy Labor Day” or “Have a good Labor Day Weekend” this year, whom are we talking to? Surely, it’s not to laborers like those in whose honor the government officially adopted the holiday in 1894, as it was suppressing the Pullman workers strike — laborers doing the hard, dirty work and earning barely subsistence wages. Surely, “Happy Labor Day” is not a greeting for the those who will be working at abysmal wages during the holiday so the rest of us can party, picnic or grab a short three-day vacation. And most certainly it’s not a salute for the workers whom Gov. Greg Abbott and the legislature have further oppressed by stripping Texas cities of their power to require employers to provide water breaks and minimal job safety standards.

Ironically, Abbott’s anti-worker law took effect on Sept. 1, the beginning of the Labor Day weekend.

Just a few days ago, we commemorated the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech soared across the nation. But we don’t talk about the “jobs” part of the rally, probably because there’s been no progress. The economic situation for America’s minority workers is no less bleak than it was 60 years ago. Perhaps we are content with an eloquent speech that covers the grime underneath.

We enjoy the benefits of the labor movement but don’t much remember the union workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly immigrants, struggling against terrible wages and brutal conditions in the country’s factories, mines and sweat shops and on its railroads, docks and ranches. Their struggle for justice and dignity brought about the 6-day week and then the 5-day week, narrowed working hours to 10 hours daily and then to 8 hours. They initiated the minimum wage and overtime pay.

None of this came from the beneficence of the moneyed class. It never has and never will.

We don’t honor their self-sacrifice, suffering, jailing, beatings and sometimes death. Worst of all, we are not in solidarity with workers who struggle today and are out of reach of living wages and decent working conditions.

The union mantra “Solidarity Forever” is lost on us. Solidarity is a foreign word for many, We take from their struggle, but don’t give back.

If we are not in solidarity with workers today, we are not in solidarity with the community. “As long as I get what I want, that’s all that’s needed” becomes the operative philosophy, even though that line of thought undercuts community.

When community is undermined, so too, ultimately, is the individual. Workers’ rights come from a person’s inherent dignity. Workers are not simply a means of production like raw materials and capital. They are entitled to work in conditions that protect their dignity, rather than diminish it.

These days, we are losing sight of the community. We can become selfish, focus on ourselves alone and forget about the need to create a more just society for our children, grandchildren and those around us, just as others did for us.

We belong to one human family — a family that crosses boundaries of race, class and country in an economy that is more globalized and interdependent every day. Our ultimate focus must be the common good, not short-term self-interest. That includes justice for the workers, who are the economy’s backbone.

Our responsibility is to reach beyond our comfort levels to speak for the voiceless, promote human rights and dignity, and seek the good of all — and future generations. We must raise our voices against the Texas politicians who undercut workers’ rights. All they do is further divide us. Solidarity is not in their vocabulary.

Renewing our commitment to community solidarity and accepting the responsibility that comes with it should become as much a part of Labor Day as the end-of-summer festivities. We have much to do.


James C. Harrington is an Austin human rights attorney and founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

James C. Harrington