It’s Labor Day tradition to celebrate the contributions working people and their unions make to sustaining our economy and promoting fairness in the workplace. This year, it’s worth also recognizing the foundational roles labor unions play in defending human rights and sustaining democracy itself.
In a 1940 Labor Day column, Eleanor Roosevelt argued that making Labor Day “one of the most significant days on our calendar” was “the surest way of proving that we intend to preserve democracy.”
Writing in the early days of World War II, when the future of democracy in the U.S. and across Europe was very much in question, Roosevelt focused her column on the story of a French friend who had observed with horror how a subset of French elites “who cared more about what they had than about France” became “almost willing to invite Mr. Hitler to control their country, in the hope that by doing so they would continue to retain all that they had without making any concessions to the workers.”
It’s a reminder of how often it’s been groups of workers who have expanded the possibilities of how democracy might be fully realized and why a robust trade union movement has been recognized as the primary bulwark against fascist control of any nation’s economy.
The dream of enacting democracy in the workplace has, of course, only ever been partially realized in the modern U.S. Indeed, the U.S. remains the only self-proclaimed industrial democracy to have failed to ratify fundamental International Labour Organization conventions affirming basic rights of workers to organize, collectively bargain, work free from discrimination, and refuse forced labor.
Along with confronting these and other challenges, labor unions maintain a special responsibility to protect hard-won rights to organize, educate coworkers and the public, and take collective action to improve working conditions — all of which are at the core of our country’s values and the survival of its democratic institutions.
The reality is that these and other rights atrophy when not exercised. The complex patchwork of dozens of varied (and often changing) state and federal statutes governing Iowa workplaces can make it difficult for individuals to determine where and when a particular law applies, or even to know which agency to contact for answers to a specific question. And only a small minority of workers has access to the enhanced knowledge of how to enforce workplace rights that often accompanies union membership.
As one contribution to closing this widening gap, this Labor Day the University of Iowa Labor Center is launching the Iowa Worker Rights Project. Through interactive workshops focused on everyday scenarios and accessible information — including a newly updated
Iowa Worker Rights Manual — the project will extend to more Iowans the opportunity to understand rights at work and how to fully engage in defending them.
For Roosevelt in 1940, Labor Day was an occasion to “remember that this nation is founded to do away with classes and special privilege; that employer and worker have the same interest, which is to see that everyone in this
nation has a life worth living.”
For us in 2017, still pursuing a nation where all have a “life worth living” can start with empowering more workers to exercise their human rights to dignified work as full participants in democratic decision-making, on and off the job.
Iowans interested in workshops or educational resources from the Iowa Worker Rights Project can contact the UI Labor Center at
— Jennifer Sherer is Director of the University of Iowa Labor Center