'A holiday for the rest of us': Labor Day a reminder to honor workers, and the fight for workplace rights

FARGO -- Enjoying your Labor Day holiday? Good! You worked for it. At the same time, as you're firing up the grill or heading to the lakes instead of to the office or some other worksite, don't forget to spare some thanks for labor unions. Withou...

Ken Boone is the site superintendent for Catherine Cater Hall project at North Dakota State University. David Samson / Forum News Service
Ken Boone is the site superintendent for Catherine Cater Hall project at North Dakota State University. David Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO - Enjoying your Labor Day holiday?

Good! You worked for it.

At the same time, as you're firing up the grill or heading to the lakes instead of to the office or some other worksite, don't forget to spare some thanks for labor unions.

Without the determination and sacrifices of union members in the 19th and 20th centuries, many workplace laws and standards we take for granted wouldn't be around.

That includes the holiday itself.


"The idea of all these benefits: the eight-hour workday, the fight against child labor, the 40-hour work week, the idea of pensions and benefits and some kind of retirement, there's an idea that things have been around forever or that the company just kind of gave them to us," says Waylon Hedegaard, president of North Dakota AFL-CIO.

Not so.

"The eight-hour workday was fought over for 50 years. People died in those fights ... just to simply get an eight-hour work day so a human being could be a real citizen," he said.

To Hedegaard, Labor Day is a celebration of the American worker, from busboys to Bill Gates.

"In the United States, we tend to honor only those people at the top of the pile, the Andrew Carnegies, the John Rockefellers, and the Bill Gateses. And really Labor Day is a mix and match. In addition, you need to honor ... everyone else," Hedegaard said.

"It's those everyday working people, then and now, that have built this country and still continue to build it," Hedegaard said. "So, Labor day is a holiday for the rest of us."

A striking start

Some say that Labor Day was the brainchild of Peter J. McGuire, who co-founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America in 1881. He proposed the idea of Labor Day in 1882.


The U.S. Department of Labor says others credit Matthew Maguire, a machinist and union official in Paterson, N.J., who also proposed the holiday in 1882.

The first Labor Day Parade was Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. Since no government or company recognized the holiday, New York's Central Labor Union solved the issue by declaring a one-day strike in the city.

Unions enjoyed their greatest strength in the post-World War II years in the United States, from the 1940s through the 1960s and 70s. In 1954, about 17 million workers, or about 28.3 percent of the workforce, belonged to a union, according to a 2004 Cornell University study.

But union membership has slipped significantly, said Charles Stevens, a professor of management at North Dakota State University.

In 1983, about 20.1 percent of American workers were union members.

In 2017, that had dropped to about 10.7 percent, or about 14.8 million people, Stevens said.

In 2017, about 6.8 percent of North Dakotans were represented by a union, with about 5.1 percent actually being union members.

Minnesota's unionization is almost double that of its neighbor. About 16 percent of Minnesota workers were represented by a union in 2017, with about 15 percent as members.


Pay, benefits, training

In Catherine Cater Hall, a seven-story dormitory under construction on the NDSU campus, union members were hanging drywall, while others taped the seams and joints on Thursday, Aug. 30

Ulen, Minn., resident Ken Boone, site superintendent for Minnesota-based RTL Construction, got his start 15 years ago in the carpenter's union in St. Louis, Mo.

"Benefits, health insurance ... and the wage," attracted him to the union, Boone said. Non-union pay was $20 an hour, while union workers in St. Louis were earning $32 an hour at the time.

"Now, it's $39 (an hour), plus benefits," Boone said.

Chris Enger was hanging drywall on the studs of a future dorm room. The Moorhead man joined the union three years ago. The 36-year-old had been working as a carpenter since he was 18.

He was working 60 hours a week and wanted to cut back to 40 hours. The union job came with the same pay for fewer hours.

"I was skeptical at first. Now I wish I had joined right out of high school," Enger said.


"One day I will be able to retire. I have a pension you can fall back on. You just don't get that non-union," Enger said.

Ryan Miller is a carpenter's apprentice. The 22-year-old Barnesville, Minn., man joined the union for the pay and the training. His previous employer paid him a top salary of $15 an hour. As a union apprentice, he started at $18 an hour.

Doug Stave, 63 of Deer Creek, Minn., is a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers. The construction elevator operator switched over from being a plumber. "I was getting older. Health insurance was the big thing," Stave said. "Union is the way to go. All for the workin' man."

Strength in numbers

It was the rise of factories and industry that spurred workers to organize, says Stevens and Jean Hannig, an assistant professor who teaches employment and contract law at Minnesota State University Moorhead

"Workers were treated very poorly early in our history. The conditions they worked within were not good. We saw the emergence of unions, which did not have the protection of federal law when they started out," Stevens said. "It wasn't all about the money, it was having a safe working environment, looking at the employment of children and starting to set boundaries on that."

Often enough, change was fought for.

"Early on, employers didn't like workers uniting and so employers used some fairly violent tactics" to try and break strikes, Hannig said.


Union members fought back, too, and strikebreakers hired by firms ran the risk of being roughed up or beaten by striking workers.

Many laws protecting workers and the right to organize came into being in the 1920s and 30s, Hannig said. The Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board were created to handle labor issues.

Unions not only lifted the fortunes of their members, but of most Americans over time, Stevens said.

"We saw workplace conditions improve," and blue-collar workers rose into middle-class status, Stevens said.

Numbers have waned

A lot of factors helped erode union membership, Stevens and Hannig said.

  • Things unions fought for are now written into federal and state laws, such as overtime pay, workplace safety and protection from discrimination.
  • Societal attitudes have changed. Workers are now more valued and more companies treat them as assets.
  • Jobs in the Northeast and Rust Belt states were often unionized. As industries were disrupted, companies migrated to the west and the south, where unionization was weaker.
  • The economy moved from an emphasis on manufacturing jobs to white collar and service positions.
  • Corruption and mismanagement of some unions turned some people off.
  • Even jealousy plays a part. Unions bargain hard for good wages and benefits. Non-union workers resent that they may get less, creating "a pushback against unions," Hannig said.

Growing up union

Public sector union membership has been consistent in recent decades, federal statistics show.


In 2015, the private sector had about 7.6 million union members, about 4.4 million fewer than in 1983. But in the public sector, there were 7.2 million members in 2015, up about 1.5 million from 1983.

Laura Christensen is one of those public sector workers. The president of the Fargo Education Association grew up "in a union family."

Being part of a union means accomplishing more together, she said.

"That can be compelling," and important in education, where teachers rely on formalized processes written into their contracts to ensure consistent and fair treatment from school to school, she said.

"I know for a fact that it has made our compensation better," as are professional development and other benefits, Christensen said.

"The better the place I am professionally, the better it is for my kids," she said.

Hedegaard said he's proud of the changes that organized labor helped bring about in America.

But all workers deserve a nod of respect, he said.

"Down deep, this day is about honoring those women and men who basically built this country from scratch and in doing so, put food on the table, put a roof over their family's heads, educated their children. It's about the honor of that," he said.

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at, or by calling 701-241-5583.
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