Happy Labor Day: Remember the early organizers, all immigrants

By Rev. Gary Kowalski, co-minister of the Unitarian Congregation of Taos.
Posted 8/22/19

Labor Day weekend will be celebrated by many Americans as an occasion for picnics and end-of-summer cookouts. But who invented the weekend, or the vacation, for that matter? Before …

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Happy Labor Day: Remember the early organizers, all immigrants

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Labor Day weekend will be celebrated by many Americans as an occasion for picnics and end-of-summer cookouts. But who invented the weekend, or the vacation, for that matter? Before the holiday honoring workers was created, back in 1882, most wage-earners toiled 12 hours a day, seven days a week in sweatshops, mills and mines that were dangerous, dirty and that paid a subsistence income. Many of the early labor organizers had names like Sacco and Vanzetti: they were Italians, Slavs, Jews or other recent immigrants, considered "un-American" and almost subhuman. But the fight for an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, sick leave, safe working conditions and an end to child labor were all their achievements.

But those wins are in jeopardy. Recently U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids at Koch Foods in Mississippi rounded up hundreds of undocumented workers at chicken factories where workers had joined the United Food and Commercial Workers and won multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the owners for racial and sexual harassment in the workplace. The company's owners faced no criminal charges for illegal hiring. Instead, the bosses phoned the feds to retaliate against their own employees.

At Peco Foods, also targeted by ICE, workers had suffered amputations as the number of federal inspectors dropped and the speed of the slaughter line increased. One Peco plant in Mississippi disassembles and packages approximately 17 tons of poultry weekly.

These detentions, the largest single-state ICE enforcements in history, were timed for the first day of school, so that children (many citizens born in the United States) came home from class to find their parents missing, behind bars. Their crime? Seeking better working conditions in jobs that nobody else wanted.

That same weekend, a shooter who posted a racist screed warning of a Latino "invasion" of our country, murdered 22 shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, the youngest victim just 15 years old.

Walmart still sells guns and ammo. Americans have a right to bear arms, in their view, just not a right to collective bargaining. The Walton family now owns $136 billion, more money than the bottom 43 percent of Americans combined. But they will not allow unions to organize in their stores, where starting workers recently received a raise to $11 per hour. Try supporting a family on that. And compare $11 to the $445,776 per hour the Walton heirs "earn." But when meat-cutters at another Walmart store in Texas formed a union, the Waltons announced within a week that they would fire all their butchers and sell only prepackaged meat at 179 other Walmart outlets.

No doubt much of that prepackaged meat is coming from places like Koch and Peco Foods. Peco Foods lists Walmart among its top customers.

Please, as you enjoy your backyard barbecue on Labor Day, ask yourself where that meat came from. Ask yourself why, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, so many meatpackers earn as little as $10 per hour. Ask yourself who would wade through a killing floor of blood, guts and grease, risking life and limb, for that kind of money. Remember the undocumented workers who are exploited, victimized by wage theft, bullied by bosses and often unable to complain for fear of deportation. Then remember the people with funny-sounding "foreign" names who fought like heck so you could enjoy a weekend.

Happy Labor Day.

Rev. Gary Kowalski is co-minister of the Unitarian Congregation of Taos.

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