In the world of the upcoming novel Jane, the Factory Girl, mill workers grind it out 14 hours a day, five days a week, then 10 hours on Saturdays. Sundays are the only day off. Even children work long hours, though less than the adults. Workers were often asked to work in unsafe conditions, and wages could be cut at the whim of the mill owners.
It’s hard for me to grasp what that world was like. They say “write what you know,” and there’s no way I can truly know what day-to-day life was like for my great-great grandparents, to whom I gave fictionalized lives in this book. My own existence is cushy in contrast. Even when I did hold a full-time job, I never had to work under those conditions.
On this Labor Day, let us remember that the development of unions provided safer environments, reduced work hours, and provided protections to workers to keep their jobs.
Recently in New York City, the Teachers Union was able to successfully postpone school openings until later this month to create a better environment to protect students, teachers, and staff from COVID-19.
My late father was a union worker. Thanks to the union, he was paid a decent wage that allowed him to provide for his family. My younger brother belongs to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Unions aren’t perfect. In some cases, they have taken on their own corruption. And at times it appears police unions, while valuable, have protected rogue cops who use excessive force. As with all organizations, unions have their flaws and must be held accountable when they go too far.
Yet unions are at risk in these uncertain times. The existence of unions has benefitted even non-union workers, so let us today pay homage to unions and all they have provided. We don’t want to go back to the days of Jane, the Factory Girl.