Labor Day 2007: Looking Beyond Boundaries
by James C. Harrington
Posted on August 30, 2007
Labor Day 2007 is not just the last holiday of the Summer, but the day the labor movement created in 1882 to honor workers. A few observations about workers rights and unions are therefore appropriate.
Workers’ rights are based in the inherent dignity of a person. Workers are not simply a means of production like raw materials and capital. They bring unique talents to their work. In return, they are entitled to work in conditions that enhance their dignity, rather than detract from it. Their work should provide the material things that allow them to live in dignity, and provide satisfaction and personal fulfillment.
Unions grew out of the struggle for social justice. They have been an important force in ensuring just wages, increasing workplace safety, eliminating child labor, preventing harassment, providing security despite changing economies, and promoting the common good.
At their best, unions strengthen family and community. By organizing, workers combine their efforts to ensure the benefit of all. Labor organizations have helped to promote policies that support families, like family leave and limits on the work week. In many places, labor organizations are sources of support for families in need, such as those facing the illness of a child or substantial job dislocation. At various times, unions have helped newcomers integrate into the local community.
In addition, unions help workers participate in the larger society. By joining together, workers can have a greater impact on the political process and the community as a whole.
The ultimate goal of labor organizations is to help build the common good. That includes a reliable safety net for workers facing hardship, policies that provide for full employment, a business culture that respects the needs of families, safe workplaces, and employers that value workers’ contributions, and policies that ensure a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage.
Throughout its history, organized labor has stood up for the poor and vulnerable – protecting new immigrants, fighting the exploitation of child laborers, and demonstrating for civil rights.
These efforts must continue in our present economy. Unions must reach out to new groups of the poor and vulnerable, including immigrants, seasonal and migrant workers, and those who lack the skills to participate in the current work environment. Unions must look beyond the self-interest of their current members and work for the good of those who have no voice or power. Workers must use their right to organize to work for the greatest good of the greatest number. They must judge their success by how the most vulnerable members of society are faring.
We belong to one human family – a family that knows no boundaries of race, class, or country. Our economy is increasingly globalized and interdependent. Our ultimate focus must be the common good, not short-term self-interest. Unions and workers must look beyond their boundaries and comfort levels to speak for the voiceless, to promote human rights and dignity, and to seek the good of all – and future generations. Solidarity is the key word.
As César Chávez, the farm labor organizer, put it, "The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people."
James C. Harrington is Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation, promotes civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas. The project has an office in El Paso. [link]
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