Opinion: Labor’s Renewal

“The American Molder”, a statue of former Albion Malleable employee John Passmore, stands tall in Molder Park. Workers like John and the many employees of the Malleable serve as a reminder of the sort of work that goes into making a town a comfortable place to call home (Photo by Juan Rodriguez).

In 1889, an international federation of socialist organizations and trade unions came together to designate May 1 a day in support of workers across the world. This came three years after the Chicago Haymarket Riot, one of the most public demonstrations in favor of an eight-hour work day. The decision to designate May 1 as International Workers Day stems from the desire to commemorate the struggles and progress made by workers and the labor movement, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

By 1889, the Albion Malleable Iron Company had only been around for a year, but it would go on to become the major economic factor in Albion during the early 20th century. According to the history provided on the City of Albion’s website, the iron company brought in residents from various parts of the world, providing the basis for Albion’s diverse population. Those who came to Albion did so in search of work, in the hopes of being able to provide for their families.

It’s been 133 years since that meeting that declared May 1 a holiday that honored workers like those of the old Malleable. It’s been 55 years since the iron factory closed and its workers were let go. In that time, the world has changed. Albion has seen itself transition from a factory town during the late 19th century to a college town during the 21st. The kind of employment opportunities that Albion offers has expanded beyond factory work and into fields such as that of college professors and baristas and custodial staff and those individuals we interact with at least once a week in our short time on this earth. 

The image of who a worker is has changed over time. In the past, the ideal worker was the man who spent hours performing physically demanding feats for extended periods of time. As we stepped through constant changes in social norms, the ideal worker has evolved as society’s perceptions have been challenged. The office worker who’s trying their best to pay off their college loans has become as valid as the single mother working in the factory to provide for her two children. 

As our perceptions around who is a worker change, the definition feels as if it needs an update of sorts. Previous definitions defined a worker as someone who worked within an industrial setting or with a specific material. Currently, that definition doesn’t encompass the reality of our society. Whether an individual works in a factory or in a cubicle or behind the cameras, they are a worker nonetheless. Workers are those who create and produce something for the benefit of another, whether it be employer or customer, in exchange for just compensation. 

Because of that notion, is there any surprise that countless workers across the country have changed their attitudes about work? Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island voted to unionize. Starbucks employees in 16 locations across the country have had similar successes in their votes to unionize. John Deere workers who were a part of the United Auto Workers union ratified a six-year agreement with John Deere back in November 2021 that included, among other things, an $8,500 signing bonus and a 20% increase in wages over the course of a contract’s lifetime.

Change is in the air. Seeing people succeed in their fights against employers who can afford to spend more on their workers brings a smile to my face. There’s a new labor movement brewing. Outlets like the New York Times reported on the potential for a new labor movement back in January. Of note is the potential role that the COVID-19 pandemic had in amplifying the voice of those workers dissatisfied with current working conditions. 4.5 million workers left their jobs in November 2021. Before that, from July 2021 to November 2021, more than 4 million workers left their jobs each month

“I think that’s people voting with their feet. That’s people who don’t have a union saying ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’” said Dr. Laura Windham, a labor historian at Georgetown University, immediately after these numbers were brought up in the article.

A person works because they have to provide for their family, for themselves, for a variety of reasons. They are only human, capable of much but not all. Whether you celebrate workers on May 1 or September 1 for Labor Day, it doesn’t matter if you constantly work someone ragged. On days like those, I find that many people just want to relax with their family and friends. These kinds of days are more a chance to relax than to celebrate the day’s history. Knowing the kind of workplaces out there, it’s understandable. It’s a nightmare, getting paid way too little for way too much stress. 

I can only hope that people are able to find themselves in a better place eventually. If a job is doing a person harm, then I hope that they are able to find a better opportunity that provides them with exactly what they want, be it better pay or better hours or a better position. Finding a job that meets the specifications of an individual is crucial if we are to have people paying to live on this planet. Otherwise, people will get it into their heads that a system that actively exploits their efforts should be challenged to prove it’s worth and importance to the general public.

People deserve to be respected as individuals and as workers who contribute to the fabric of a community. Showing respect isn’t saying that you wish all workers a happy Labor Day. Showing respect is doing something about passing a $20 dollar minimum wage to keep up with the rising cost of living while also providing funds to local businesses who may be unable to meet that federal standard. 

Whatever happens, I feel optimistic about the future. More than that, I simply can’t help but wish for the best for the workers who ensure that this town of ours doesn’t fall apart. As someone who isn’t an Albion local, you all have done a great service in making sure that those who stop by and stay for a while feel at home here. 

About Juan G. Rodriguez 45 Articles
Juan G. Rodriguez is a senior sharing his time between Dallas and East Texas. He is majoring in English and minoring in Political Science. As an individual with two pencil leads in his left knee, writing seems to be the only career that Juan is capable of. Contact Juan via jgr13@albion.edu.

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