Last month we observed Labor Day, a day set aside to celebrate the freedom that came to the American workers as they organized to throw off the chains of slavery in the workplace. Like me, you may have viewed videos depicting the deplorable conditions in factories in 19th century with the advent of the industrial revolution. As I watched, my mind tumbled down the proverbial rabbit hole and my thoughts ran to a topic that I’ve studied for years: slavery.
Then a new thought emerged about financial freedom, time freedom and the mindset of workers. So before walking away from Labor Day I want to examine briefly what the labor movement brought to workers of my generation – the baby boomers – and explore how it has impacted thinking in the workplace today.
First, a brief history lesson. In the late 19th century, the industrial revolution created advances in technology and people moved to the city in droves to fill manufacturing jobs. This nation experienced an explosion in size and wealth. Employers raked in big profits, but the employees were cruelly subjected to a system that can accurately be described as slavery: long hours, unsafe working conditions, no benefits. Everyone in the family had to work just to keep the lights on and even children as young as 6 were working up to 55 hours a week.
These conditions triggered a massive and prolonged labor movement. Using protests, strikes and appeals to political leaders as their weapons, workers organized into unions and were able to institute laws which brought about much needed changes.
In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act created new work benchmarks for industry:
- The 40-hour work week and work-free weekends.
- The regulation of child labor.
- A minimum wage and overtime pay provision.
Additional wins for workers were broadly adopted later. These included:
- Health care plans as part of the employment package.
- Occupational safety standards for prevention of injuries on the job.
- Pension and retirement plans offered through employers.
Finally, workers began to experience a degree of safety and security in the workplace. So, although labor unions are on the decline today, the labor movement which began in the early 1900’s forever changed the way Americans live, work and relax. We certainly do well to recognize and celebrate these accomplishments.
During the years following the labor movement the baby boomers who made up the workforce were lulled into a false sense of security, relying on the employer to take care of them. This unfortunate mindset spoiled future American workers, and many were caught off guard as they began to experience an erosion of workplace protections. In some ways, workers were still like slaves; they had just come under a better master. And we are witnessing the shackles gradually tightening around wrists and ankles, again.
The 40-hour work week seemed to be the first protection to come under attack. In the 1970’s I recall employers talking about possibly re-configuring work week. The traditional five days at 8 hours per day was morphing into four, 10-hour days – or so we were told. The resulting trade off – a three-day weekend – would be desirable to many workers. However, this predicted trend was fulfilled only halfway. Ten-hour days became quite common but the four-day week never materialized. And the dream of a three-day weekend evaporated as many companies began requiring employees to work Saturdays and even Sundays. Today 12-hour shifts are not uncommon. In my research I even came across one trucking company that schedules drivers for 14-hour shifts (despite DOT regulation of driver’s hours). “Banker’s hours” used to be nine to five, but because of online banking and various customer friendly practices within the system, even this once privileged category of workers find themselves saddled with long hours. The last banker I spoke with described herself as “on call 24/7” and she was thrilled to have one Sunday off every few months.
Health care plans are the second standard to see erosion in recent times. Finding affordable health care is a challenge for most families, especially for older workers and those with pre-existing conditions.
And finally, we have to mention the inadequacy of retirement provisions. Pension plans have been widely abolished. Many 401K’s and other plans are struggling to provide profitable returns. And workers who change jobs frequently may struggle to accumulate (or keep track of) their retirement funds.
Sadly, we find that the new master is slipping back into some of the pre-labor movement practices. What’s the solution? Do we need a new labor movement? More protests? More strikes? I don’t think so. Instead, we all need to become our own new master by learning to master the system. This mastery may begin with obtaining the best possible employment, but it cannot end there. We can no longer safely rely on an employer to meet every economic need. In truth, we live in a free enterprise system, but until we as individuals truly understand and pursue both freedom and enterprise, we will slip into the status of dependent employees.
The economy has changed, the workplace has changed, our money system has changed, and we now find ourselves motivated to take control of our own lives—our opportunities, our finances, our future. We must educate ourselves and work in community to become our own masters, learning to:
If successful, we will leave a different legacy for future generations. The labor movement was a beginning, but now we need to take freedom to the next level where we are no longer just employees, we are the masters.