On the holiday, we can't forget workers' struggles are not over

September 2, 2007 

In 1882, some workers (there's still an argument over exactly who) had the idea that they deserved a day off. So, on the first Monday of September, they put down their tools and took it. Labor Day was born.

Then, a day off was special. The government didn't guarantee a 40-hour work week, there was no health insurance, paid vacation or overtime. Forget about paid holidays. If you griped about wages or hours, you could be fired. Or beat up. Or shot at. We too often forget that our relatively comfortable working conditions were hard won through the courage, grit and blood of working men and women 125 years ago.

The first Labor Day set us on the path to recognizing that workers had rights. The idea spread from the factories of New York to the mines of Colorado and back. Sometimes, the parades and celebrations were met with violence by those who owned the factories, shipyards and mines.

Such incidents aren't relegated to history textbooks. People struggling to earn similar protections are being beaten, abused and put into jail today. Some are tortured, some are killed and some just disappear.

We're not talking about workers in China, Malaysia or North Korea. It's much closer to home than that; closer even than New York or Chicago. It's happening in Mexico.

Santiago Cruz, an organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, was killed in April in Monterrey, Mexico. His group worked with the U.S. government to obtain agricultural visas for Mexican workers. Workers then were sent to farms in the southeastern United States, where they worked under a union contract. No bribes, no illegal immigration; everything is on the up-and-up. Unfortunately, this cuts into the dirty business of Mexican labor contractors, whose thugs, it is believed, broke into the organizing committee office, tied up Cruz and beat him to death.

In August, miners demonstrated in remote Sonora, Mexico. One miner was killed; 20 simply "disappeared." Mexico has some of the most progressive labor laws in the hemisphere, but in the maquiladoras, those laws routinely are ignored. Women, especially, are exploited and abused. The United Nations in March decried the deaths of a dozen children working on large farms in 2006.

What does labor strife in Mexico -- our poorer next-door neighbor -- have to do with us? Many of the products created under these conditions are sold here. More directly, Mexican workers are flooding this nation because the wages are good, but also because they are treated better here. And just as their workers come here, many of our jobs are going there. Does anyone think that workers in Mexico's new Hershey plant will get the same benefits that workers in Oakdale had?

Our labor standards, sense of justice and traditions of fair play are not being exported with our jobs. Instead, many American companies who move south adopt the worst practices of their host. Beyond the reach of our laws and workplace regulations, some American companies act like plantation owners. Instead of exporting our values, they spit on them.

In July, Newsweek reported on children as young as 10 "volunteering" to work in Mexican Wal-Marts. These kids stand at the end of the checkout line, bag the purchases, then carry them to the parking lot. Their tips are their only pay. Other Mexican stores also have "volunteer" baggers. But Wal-Mart is an American company, and should know better than to exploit children. There are other examples. Children young enough to play with Barbie dolls in the United States are making clothing for the dolls in Mexico.

We are told not to resent the departure of American jobs. Opening factories in Mexico, say free-trade advocates, not only helps U.S. companies remain competitive, but strengthens Mexican society. Our companies will show them by example how to treat employees. The societal disparities now so visible across the border, say free-trade idealists, will lessen as our examples are followed. Standards will change. But whose? Many of those cheaply made products streaming back across the border carry a hidden price tag; the abandonment of American ideals, a betrayal of American traditions.

There are many advantages to free trade. But free trade cannot become free license to mistreat workers and devalue human labor.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, American laborers engaged in a great struggle for workplace rights and human dignity. Eventually, that struggle helped strengthen our society. We celebrate that struggle once a year with Labor Day. Let's not forget that the struggle continues.

Dunbar is associate editor of The Bee. Reach him at 578-2325 or mdunbar@modbee.com.

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