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Laboring on Labor Day

Be honest. What did you do on Labor Day?

Like many Americans, I worked that day. Of course, since I’m self-employed, I didn’t have to work but no work means no pay for freelancers.

Labor Day used to celebrate the American worker and labor unions. But “union” become a bad word back in 1981 when President Reagan fired unionized air traffic controllers who had gone on strike for better wages and working conditions.

Labor Day is No Longer a Workers’ Holiday

Labor Day isn’t a day off for many workers. According to USA Today, about a third of Americans are working today. Most work in retail, which pays on the lower end of the scale.

Many stores are open, and as far as I can remember, have been open on the Labor Day “holiday.” The holiday is a draw for those who want or need bigger-ticket items like a late-model car. Or as the Scribe from New Jersey sings, to buy a new used car.

But in the old days, workers had to be enticed to work on Labor Day. Even part-time workers were asked, nicely, to work the holiday, with promises of time-and-a-half pay. Today, I’m not so sure that’s the case. A Bloomberg BNA survey says one-third or workers are required to work on major holidays like Thanksgiving. Most will get some monetary award for working on that particular holiday.


Retail Work Isn’t Very Nice to Employees

Most retail establishments don’t recognize any holidays at all. Even grocery stores stay open well into the July 4 and Christmas Eve holidays. Some will close early “to give our employees time to enjoy” the holidays.

I worked a retail job a few years ago, when I signed up for holiday work at my local Target. I understood there would be odd hours during holidays.

I didn’t really mind the work itself. The customer service training was interesting. I liked the discounts they gave employees, and my coworkers were nice. But management rules eventually ended my “career” there. I just didn’t have the physical stamina for one part of the job.

shoe display at retail store
As a Target worker, I feared nothing, not even the shoe department!

It wasn’t lifting boxes, cleaning up the shoe department, or stocking shelves that got to me. I didn’t mind those at all, and let me tell you, it was hard for management to find anyone who’d work in the shoe department.

I was defeated by working at the register, a task required for all non-management employees.

A thinly-veiled anti-union training video we watched during our training extolled how much fun it is to work in different areas. It didn’t discuss that standing on a hard floor in one place for more than an hour can be hard on the body.

I changed footwear and wore supportive sneakers and inserts, even those fancy Dr. Scholls gels, purchased with my 10% employee discount. When there were no lines, I’d walk away to straighten out the gum and other stuff stocked near the register.

I still ended register shifts with hip pain bad enough to make me walk with a lurch, like I’d been injured.

I asked if I could buy a padded kitchen mat sold in the store to use at my register. I already had one at home in my kitchen, and it was great. Nope, not allowed. No reason given.

Then there was the water issue. My register trainer told me we could keep bottled water at the registers as long as we only drank when no customers were around. Then a manager cited me for doing just this. I explained what my trainer had told me and mentioned I also take medication that dries me out. I pointed out that we do, after all, live in a dry climate here in Arizona and most people need to frequently hydrate.

I was told to get a doctor’s note. My disbelieving doctor took the time to write out a note, which I duly presented.

In the meantime, another coworker, a guy about my age, fainted on the job. It was probably from dehydration. He quit after that.

Later, we met up to talk business (he’s a photographer) and he told me how embarrassing the whole ordeal was for him. The store insisted on calling paramedics. Everyone saw him get carried out on a stretcher.

I ended up quitting because my hips continued to ache. Nowadays, I notice that Target employees are permitted both a padded support mat to stand on and water at the register. And that manager is gone, too. I have to wonder if it was her decision or Target’s to deny these modest supports to employees. Too bad there wasn’t a union rep I could ask.

When I gave my reason for resigning, no one offered any suggestions to alleviate my discomfort.

Right to Work? Really?

Since Arizona is a “right to work” state, it’s nearly impossible to get union protections here.

“Right to work” means that anything a union negotiates for members benefits all workers, regardless of whether they belong to the union. The argument behind “right to work” laws is that no one is forced to join a union.

Once upon a time, it was normal to be unionized if you worked an hourly job and or a job deemed particularly dangerous or sensitive like air traffic control. Unions protected employees from outright abuses like forcing them to work off the clock to meet quotas. They guaranteed breaks and ensured overtime pay. Unions also made sure employees had benefits and decent pay—enough to actually live on in the area in which a job is located.

In their early days, unions ended the practice of 12-hour shifts, six days a week. They ended child labor and got safety regulations put in to make workplaces less dangerous for everyone.

There are now laws that provide some of the protections unions used to give. But no one is watching out for the labor force. Businesses, whether retail, service-oriented, or in another category, have a much stronger hand in negotiating salaries and benefits against a lone hire.

In fact, today’s employees don’t have a right to work, at least not full-time. In our right-to-work state, employees can get laid off or otherwise dismissed from a job without any notice at all. Yet most employers require employees to agree to provide notice before they leave: they actually make them sign contracts to guarantee this. And businesses here don’t even have to pay for unused leave when workers are laid off.

The Irony of Labor Day

We still celebrate Labor Day, sort of.

Most of us use the time to catch up on work. Students inevitably have assignments due right after Labor Day (we start school in August in Arizona). People spend at least some of the time working on or cleaning their homes. Fewer people are going out of town or really taking time off.

People say unions got greedy and corrupt. Some did. So did some businesses. Today’s executives earn about 300 times more than their typical employees, even when they’re “forced” to shrink their workforce or require employees to take furloughs, which are forced, unpaid time off. Locally, Honeywell has become infamous for this practice.

Many businesses seem to have abandoned the concept of being a great place to work. They accept high turnover as a norm.

The worst ones don’t even care about worker safety and no one calls them on it until their coal mines implode. Remember the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, and BP/Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico? Workers are killed, and local environments become disaster areas. This is what happens when we don’t have unions and we’re busy shrinking government oversight staff.

No one is looking out for most of us, a sad irony when a day meant to honor labor is in reality just another workday.





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Ruth Ann Monti is a writer for all things webby. She lives in sunny Scottsdale, AZ with her son.