Essential Workers Day

14 Aug

Labor Day falls on the first weekend of September. I propose that we change the holiday’s name to Essential Workers Day. The term, essential workers, has taken on a new and important meaning during the pandemic, and it should change the way we think about Labor Day.

Who are essential workers? They are the base, the infrastructure, on which the work of society depends. The chef imagines and puts together the meal that brings oohs and aahs from the diners. But without line cooks, waitstaff, bussers, dishwashers and janitors, the chef will never be able to begin work. Koehler and Moen may design breathtaking bathrooms and kitchens, but without plumbers and their helpers, the water will never be hooked up. Architects ,and general contractors may envision fine buildings, but those buildings will never rise without hod carriers, common laborers, bricklayers, HVAC workers and the other trades. Medicine at the forefront will not be practiced unless doctors have the support work  of nurses, orderlies, technicians of many sorts, janitors, and tradespeople who keep operating rooms functioning. This applies to all health care facilities and retirement communities. These workers are the truck drivers who make the supply chain work, and factory workers who produce cars and refrigerators. Recently, the exploited sector of academia—teaching assistants and athletes—have formed unions.

You get the picture. We know the chefs, architects, and doctors by name, but who knows the name of the dishwasher or line cook on whom the chef is totally dependent? Who knows the names of the five workers who were killed, or the 100 who were injured, in the constructing of Sears Tower? These are sometimes called the “grunt” workers. They often have fewest benefits and are the first fired. If undocumented workers are available, they will be hired, because they get even lower wages and benefits. 

These workers are the people that Labor Day intends to honor. And they have not had an easy time. Karl Marx (1818-1883) turned things upside down with his theories that made these workers the pivot of society. These workers are the laboring class, the “proletariat,” the “proles” of Orwell’s novel, 1984.

Essential workers have never had an easy time of it in the United States. Workers find their voice in labor unions. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, is a foundational statute of United States labor law. It guarantees the right of private sector employees to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and take collective action such as strikes

From the beginning, efforts to unionize have met with opposition, even violence, from employers and their hired police. Twenty-eight states have“right to work” laws, which make it difficult to form unions. Some states are anti-union. In 2014, Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina said, “We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina.” In 2015, Governor Rauner of Illinois attempted to remove the right of  public service employees to collective bargaining. Even today well-known companies like Amazon and Starbucks actively oppose unions. This may be because union members earn on the average 11% higher wages and set the standard for non-union workers in the same industry.

The high point of union membership was in the 1980s, when 20% of workers were in unions, compared to 10.3% today. Thanks to the automobile, steel, and coal industries, along with the Teamsters and service unions, labor unions wield considerable power, especially at election time.

During the recent pandemic, essential workers were called, 

“Heroes”—but their wages were seldom increased. Today we experience a shortage of essential workers. Hospitals, healthcare facilities, hair salons, railroads and airlines, and many other places report difficulties in finding workers. There are several explanations put forth to explain this, but it remains a puzzlement and a worry. Perhaps the pandemic moved  people to reconsider their lives. Perhaps these workers feel that they no longer want to work in jobs where they are under appreciated, underpaid, and frequently overworked.

On this Labor Day there will be parades, cook-outs, and speeches. Essential workers will be praised. But will life really be made better for these workers who make our lives possible? Labor Day is also a time for reflection and deepening our understanding of how our society works and the essential people who make it possible to work at all.

(c) Phil Hefner.  8/14/2022

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