Labor Day comes but once a year

August 28, 2008, 2:44 PM UTC
Fortune

I’m going to interrupt the discussion on our putative merger/acquisition scenario to pause for a moment and reflect on the magic and mystery that is Labor Day. That’s because within minutes I will have completed my last real work of the summer and will “step away” to be “traveling” until Tuesday morning. I have already stopped thinking seriously for the week, even about Canada.

Labor Day! A holiday in celebration of the American worker, and of the organized labor movement that transformed the way we do business. Shorter hours. Better working conditions. Minimum wages. All these things were mere pipe dreams before unions arrived to give powerless workers a voice at the table. When I was a young man, I was making $87.50 a week. They could pay me that because I was doing something I loved. Then I joined a union. Suddenly, I was making an amazing amount of money — $175 a week! And when I got sick a few years later, the union paid my medical bills. All of them. I won’t bore you with the details, but if they hadn’t done that I would still be paying that bill off.

In the earlier part of the century just past, my grandmother worked for a place called the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. She was a seamstress. They had no unions, of course. One day she asked to go to the bathroom and her supervisor told her to shut up and keep working, so she quit. A few weeks later, there was a fire and a whole bunch of the girls she had worked with died. It’s a famous story. You can look it up. After that, she was what they called a Union Maid all the way. You can sort of see why.

Organized Labor has always had its detractors. On the left, the Communist Party hated Unions, and railed against them. I believe it was because Unions were seen as a way workers could exist within the Capitalist system, and a barrier to true revolution. In the ranks of Capitalist management, opinion was and remains much the same. Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick shot down striking workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania, back in the day, and now both have very nice museums in their names. You can’t do that anymore, not that anybody would want to. Much. There’s still no love lost between management and the organizations that represent the labor force, though.

This is ironic, in a way, because nobody is more assiduous in celebrating this holiday than the senior ranks of the great corporate institutions. The bigger the senior officer, in fact, the more likely they are to take the holiday very seriously indeed, even going so far to extend it a couple of days on both ends.

Perhaps we should all do the same. Have a good one, working people.