Monday is what we call a “holiday”, the word rooted in “Holy Day” or, at the very least, a day of celebration. It’s one of the lost days of our calendar in the sense that very few people seem to understand that Labor Day was a day meant to celebrate the simple fact that everything we have was made by the efforts of someone otherwise unnamed. It was a day on the opposite side of Summer from May Day, when the rest of the world celebrates the same thing. That was colored with the memories of the Haymarket Riot and nasty stories from Europe. This is a day to celebrate American Labor – and the Union movement that brought us the weekend, among other things.
Like many kids of my generation, I had a bad image of labor unions growing up. There was something that was supposed to be seedy and corrupt about the whole idea of organizing for reasons that I never understood. Fortunately, I had a tendency to not believe things when the logic of them was lost on me. This came in handy when I had my first real job, a summer gig at Florida Power & Light’s Cutler Plant as an intern chemist and gopher.
Cutler Plant was a pair of gas fired steam units built just after WWII to turn the ever increasing number of air conditioners that kept the Florida out of a growing paradise. It was old and weary by the time I got there, used only when the sun beat a kind of desperation into controlled modern lives and the demand for power became nearly insatiable. We would fire up at noon, be ready at 3:00, and roll until about 7:00. It was hard on the old towers, but we did it nearly every day.
The plant was the domain of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, IBEW as much as it was Florida Power & Light’s. I say that because of a curious relationship that was worked out years before in order to avoid a strike, or so I was told. The IBEW contract was up, and their top concern was that FP&L wasn’t exactly a safe place to work, the story went. There had been a few accidents, and the union wanted new safety standards.
The response in negotiations was different. “You do it,” was what the company told the union in effect. So they did. Written in the contract was a Safety Committee that had full authority over everything relating to safety – even if they had to shut down the plant. It was a gamble that shutting down a plant two wouldn’t be as bad as a general strike. In that sense, the IBEW had a sudden stake in management.
I saw the Safety Committee in operation, and I was impressed. They took their work very seriously, and the company allowed them wide latitude to do what they needed. The idea was that the workers knew better than anyone what a safety threat was, and it was true. The plant had no loss time accidents despite scrambling every day to get the old towers up and running.
What was special about this arrangement? I’m not entirely sure. What I can tell you is that when I saw a union have a stake in running things, they did a great job. They weren’t just whining about how much they should be paid or things like that, they made the whole operation work – not just safely, but effectively and with a great deal of pride. It was special to me, at least, because it was my first experience with a union – and it ran against all the terrible things I’d heard about them.
Since then, I’ve seen many similar arrangements that worked well and I could go on and on about. What matters, I believe, is that unions operate the best when the workers are not only organized but have a real stake in how things work. It’s not about having a power that holds management in check, it’s when they have the power to be the management when it counts.
This is a day for Labor. A day to celebrate what the work of people has done to get us where we are. I like to celebrate what could be if we start to realize that everything we have comes, somewhere, from labor. When the people that make things have a real stake in the operation amazing things can happen. That’s worth celebrating.