López: It’s Labor Day, Thanks to Unions

José Antonio López
José Antonio López

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The Industrial Revolution era began in England and the U.S. generally around the first half of the 18th century and carried itself well into the next.

In truth, the economic upheaval gave birth and meaning to that part of the population now known as the middle class and working poor; called collectively, the working class.

Key to the industrialization idea was a fundamentally new view of society. For example, previously in England, there were two classes of people: the land-owning royal aristocracy and the lower class (living within large estates). As such, each realm produced and consumed what it needed within its own boundaries. Thus, the common people’s labor and very lives were at the mercy of their masters. A windstorm of change known as Industrialization was on the verge of changing all of that.

In the U.S., the English colonists soon declared independence; getting rid of self-professed divine rulers. Sadly, even after ousting King George III from the U.S., similar English-style class distinction continued to exist. The noble families were gone, but in their place, rich U.S. citizens of Anglo Saxon-descent became the landed gentry — a clone of the former aristocracy. So, as it was in England, only two classes of people existed (haves and have nots).

The time was indeed magical for the upper class and investors from Europe. They became the first U.S. capitalists. No longer were goods made and sold at the whim of an aristocrat, they were now sold on the open market. Moreover, industrialization made it possible to overproduce for selling and consuming outside, rather than just inside village boundaries.

Most of all, entrepreneurs in the U.S. were able to build plants and companies to provide an ever-growing list of products once barred from being manufactured locally. The question is how were such men able to increase their wealth and power so quickly? The answer is that a vast manpower pool was getting bigger. Immigrants from Europe and migrants from rural areas flooded the industrial bases (cities). They were easy to use, abuse, and discard. Because laborers were taken for granted, little thought was given to their well-being and/or self-fulfillment.

Thus, the sky was the limit for those with money. However, for the work force, life was dismal. Little had changed in their life style since monarchial days. In stark contrast to the gilded road open to the affluent, workers’ lives were dark and dreary. Generations of workers soon came to swallow a bitter pill — the reality that the items and commodities they were put under extreme strain to produce were out of reach for most of them. The point that modern-day U.S. workers must realize is that in those days, pay did not equal level of effort. Plus, there was no upward mobility and no annual cost-of-living (COLA) increases.Hard to believe; but it’s true!

An interesting fact for those of us who originate in Texas and the Southwest; it was that unfair capitalistic economic system that prompted many lower class U.S. citizens to abandon their country. Beginning in the early 1800s, a humanity tsunami gained speed heading west of the Mississippi River. They were in search of opportunity and the possibility of a better life somewhere else in America. As mostly illegal immigrants, they headed to Mexico (Texas)!

Enter the labor organizers. After decades of attempting to reason with a few kind-hearted employers, skilled major trades workers in the industrial northeast (both women & men) decided they’d had enough. Something had to be done. Enriching others with their intellect and muscle, they sought equal pay for equal work. Where conditions were unbearable, walkouts and strikes eventually brought owners to the table to build the first unions and formal boss-worker contracts. The very idea of collective bargaining for workers was unheard of at the time. Many early leaders were jailed, fined, and some paid with their lives (Haymarket Massacre, 1886).

Soon, labor leaders’ diligence paid off. So inspiring was their self-sacrifice that national level government officials began to see the need to fix a broken system. Ample legislation was done to protect workers in our capitalist economic system that up to then favored only the rich employer. Finally, their collective voices were heard. In 1887 the first Monday in September was approved as a Labor Day of rest and recreation to honor U.S. workers and their families.

What are some of the union-inspired benefits most of us take for granted? How about the 8-hour day, 40-hour week, pay raises, overtime pay; earned sick & vacation days; health insurance, retirement plans, decent work place lighting and environment; off-duty education, training, re-training, upward mobility, teachers’ lesson planning time; medical staff protective gloves and masks; safety goggles; work breaks; break rooms, and many more. Yes, unions have had their share of growing pains; but what large enterprise hasn’t? Besides, although many workers never joined (or could not) join, all workers enjoyed the unions’ help. Ironically, many union-won best practices and benefits were imported by companies in right-to-work states like here in Texas!

Indeed, it was unions that helped workers climb into the middle class, because at one time there was no one else to turn to. Albeit, as incomes rose, many workers cut their lifeline to unions and so, their influence withered. Today, some question unionization to the point that even the word union is touchy. Worse, in the modern arena, employees no longer have an advocate. So, the wide, deep chasm between management and workers has made profits soar, while average worker pay has remained stagnant for decades. The disparity topic is often headline news today.

So, to all our South Texas readers, family, friends, and everyone else who works for a living – let’s do one special thing this day. As we celebrate with family, barbecue, and parades, let’s say a silent prayer to honor our visionary ancestors. One day, a long, long time ago they made a promise via their blood, sweat, and tears — “Made in the U.S.A.” will always keep our country great. All they seek in return is that employers treat their workers with dignity, respect, and fair pay. That has always been the meaning behind the Union label. Happy Labor Day!

José “Joe” Antonio López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of two books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero),” and “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas).” Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a Web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.

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