Celebrating Labor Day by Honoring Union Members

Happy Labor Day! It’s going to be so nice to have a day off from work on Monday, right? But do you know why we actually celebrate Labor Day? 

It’s a holiday that honors the American labor movement, which began back in the late-19th century. It celebrates that Americans were able to unionize and push their companies for rights, such as paid time off, a 40-hour work week and minimum work ages.

We thought it would be appropriate to spend some time talking about the importance of unions in the United States today. We’ve previously highlighted workers’ rights in our piece on side gigs here, and we featured a reporter who works in a union in one of our money diaries here. 

So what exactly is a union? It’s an organized group of workers who come together to protect their rights. A union works like a democracy - its members vote on the issues important to them and elect leaders democratically. 

While unions are generally recognized as an important piece of the functioning of capitalism in the United States, that doesn’t mean that companies love them. In fact, most unions face roadblocks like employers discouraging their formation. 

Forming a union is really difficult today. Most companies offer a “right to work” program, which means employees have the "right to work" as a non-union worker in a unionized field, thus corroding the collective bargaining power of the union fighting for the benefits that employees reap. 

Some industries, like the teaching industry, are super unionized. But others, like tech, are far from it. 

Slowly but surely, minimum wage jobs are becoming more unionized. 

The Fight for 15 movement is a major union working on behalf of minimum wage workers in the United States today. The national minimum wage continues to sit at $7.25 per hour, which means that if someone works 40 hours a week for one year at minimum wage, they'll make roughly $15,080. The 2017 federal poverty level is at $16,240 for a household of two people. As a result, Fight for 15 is working to advocate for a $15 per hour minimum wage. 

So, what can you do to support unions? You should join one. Here’s a list of labor unions in the United States at this point. If one doesn’t exist, get together with your fellow workers and get organized. Collective bargaining is really powerful if we use it correctly.

Beyond this, contribute monetarily or physically (show up to support strikes!) to local labor movements. Support teachers, transit workers and construction workers who have already unionized. 

Even if you can't join a union, or one doesn't exist for your industry, you can still learn from unions. Share your pay with coworkers you trust. Negotiate - you're worth it. Stand up for your colleagues and have their back. 

Vote for pro-union candidates when you can. Unions are often the boogey-man, and blamed for jobs leaving the United States, even when they’re really just trying to help U.S. workers get ahead. A government that supports unions is generally one that supports workers.

- Alicia McElhaney / She Spends Issue #18