Organized Labor Still Alive and Well


Labor Day is coming up. In the United States, as with most legally mandated Monday holidays, in the minds of most it has lost any inspirational significance and has become just another three-day weekend.

In fact, its forgotten significance is buried deeper than the other Monday holidays. Many people who can tell you what Memorial Day and Veterans Day mean will be enjoying their Sept. 1 cookout without a clue what Labor Day means. (If this is you, a hint--it has something to do with unions.)

Labor will get its annual ink this Labor Day weekend, in a theme echoed over the 20 years I've been in the labor movement. The articles read like obituaries. They'll begin like this: "The American labor movement, like the old gray mare, ain't what she used to be. Down from a high of 35 percent of the workforce to less than 8 percent, labor is on its last legs."

Sorry to digress, but if unions are all but interred, if organized labor is so 20th century, so backward as to be irrelevant in the global economy, why all the flap over the Employee Free Choice Act?

This proposed legislation may not yet be on your mind. But if your state is a political battleground this year, you're seeing and hearing radio and TV ads in heavy rotation attacking unions and union friendly politicians. The over-the-top media spots feature Sopranos-style thugs and talking ballot boxes.

What's it all about? In short, big corporate interests are worried that the next government will amend labor law in 2009 to help workers who want to choose a union and rebuild America. For more, go to www.ufcw.org or www.americanrightsatwork.org.

It's why Walmart is schooling its management to preach voting against Democrats in the November election. With a new government and a new labor law, Walmart is scared its workers might get a shot at a voice on the job. So, no matter what the pundits say on Labor Day, the reports of labor's death are greatly exaggerated.

We aren't dead, not by a long shot. I'm with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, with over a million members in the U.S. and Canada. At our convention in Montreal last week, I spoke about my Christian calling and the work the union has to do.

Here's what I said:

"I'm a Christian, I know something about calling. A calling is a voice you hear with your heart, that you feel deep inside, when you're so inspired that you know it comes from above. Consider these heartfelt words from the Bible. 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and the Spirit has anointed me to preach good news among the poor, to let the oppressed go free, to make the world better this year.'

"That's Jesus, speaking about his calling, a calling to a mission. It's a mission that belongs to all who believe--Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and beyond. You know what a mission is. It's more than your job description. It's bigger than your To-Do list. It's as big as the Montreal sky. It's to protect human rights and human dignity, to fight poverty, to speak out when no one else will--or can. It's to form that thin line against greed and injustice, to do, as the Apostle says, the work of love.

"Yes, we have some work to do. For the work of love is the work of change. We've been called to bring change. As Gandhi said, we must be the change we want to see in the world. Change isn't easy. Change isn't simple or obvious. It's just essential, right here, right now."

My paraphrase of Jesus' "Nazareth Manifesto," Luke 4:18-19, touched a deep place in the convention delegates' hearts. They resonated with the nexus between their high calling and the calling to something higher. The time is right for labor people who believe and believers who care about the struggles of people who labor to organize together, united as one in one cause.

As a Monday holiday, Labor Day is a paid day off. It's time, to echo Martin Luther King's words, for Labor Day to be a day on, not a day off.

Labor Day was born during the Industrial Revolution in the struggle for an eight-hour day. Eight hours, not 10 or 12 or more, became the norm for work, allowing people time to rest, take care of families and worship.

Eight hours became the norm, not through normal evolution or owner enlightenment, but when workers and their unions literally shed blood to secure their children's future. We today are their literal and spiritual children, and Labor Day is their legacy and our responsibility. It's a day on, not a day off, as we continue to stand up on the job.

No, organized labor in America isn't dead. American unions are uniting with labor globally to engage global corporate power. Unions like the UFCW are organizing and growing everywhere, because working people come together in tough economic times.

Unions are finding their spiritual center and bringing that light out from under the bushel for the world to see. Let's do it together.

Chris Sanders is executive assistant to the president and general counsel for Local 227 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, representing working people across Kentucky and Southern Indiana. Active at Highland Baptist Church, he plays rock guitar and leads worship at the Friday church service.

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Tags: Chris Sanders, Labor, Politics