Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day Blogging

Happy Labor Day, readers! Before heading off to obligatory family picnics, take a few minutes to learn about why we have Labor Day--and why it's still so important to keep fighting for workers' rights!

Labor Day began 125 years ago, during a time when workers across America were involved in a surge of protest movements that demanded their rights to fair working conditions and pay. They wanted an end to 12-hour work days, paltry wages, and unsanitary and unhealthy working conditions. They wanted to unionize, or join together in workers' unions that would counteract greedy, powerful big businesses.

Mary Harris Jones, aka Mother Jones (the namesake of the modern magazine), was an important figure in the labor movement. Mother Jones, a self-described "hell-raiser," was once denounced in the U.S. Senate as the "grandmother of all agitators." But she was proud of that title and said she hoped to live to be the "great-grandmother of agitators."

Mother Jones was one of the most important members of the Knights of Labor, a major workers' union that helped establish Labor Day. She was also one of its few women members. But she was a fierce fighter for fair wages and working conditions, and she took on child labor as one of her biggest causes. In many ways, she was the mother of the modern labor movement.

The Knights of Labor created the first Labor Day celebration on September 5, 1882. They wanted to make it a national holiday. President Cleveland wasn't particularly excited to support the day, but he was also opposed to supporting the May 1 holiday that workers in other parts of the world celebrate as Labor Day, because unions had held major riots on May 1 that had brought mayhem to urban America. He didn't want a federal holiday to draw attention to those events! So he agreed to make a September Labor Day a national holiday.
Today, few people think about the history of the labor movement on Labor Day. PBS explains, "Labor Day is [now] seen as the last long weekend of summer rather than a day for political organizing. In 1995, less than 15 percent of American workers belonged to unions, down from a high in the 1950's of nearly 50 percent, though nearly all have benefited from the victories of the Labor movement." But there's still so much work to be done for workers! We still live in a world that prioritizes business profits over workers' rights. And as American businesses keep increasing international trade and exporting labor--that is, taking factory and other jobs overseas for cheaper labor--the labor movement must expand to look at working conditions in other countries. A number of international unions have been formed, but it's still the tip of the iceberg. Which bring me to my next Labor Day tidbit...on child labor.

As students head back to school this week, it's easy to forget that millions of kids around the world won't be going to school--but to work. According to UNICEF, an estimated 246 million children must go to work each day around the world. In fact, in places like West and Central Africa, 41% of boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 14 are child laborers.

What gives? Well, in many parts of the world, dirt-poor families have no choice but to use their children's labor to make ends meet. Even when governments offer families free education for their children, global poverty is so bad that many families have to choose between having their kids in school and having bread on the table. According to UNICEF, 1 billion children worldwide suffer from extreme poverty, which leaves them "vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, violence, discrimination and stigmatization.” Poor children are especially likely to be exploited by employers who force them to work long days under treacherous conditions, often with dangerous materials.

Take this child's story:
Each day, Alone Banda wakes before the crack of dawn. With only a weak cup of tea to carry him through his fourteen-hour day, he walks to a quarry south of his Zambian hometown. Like other boys in his town, Alone, eight, works as a stone-crusher. He spends the day heating rocks with flaming rubber scraps, so that the stones will fracture more easily with a steel bolt. New York Times reporter Michael Wines writes, “At dusk, when three or four blazes spew choking black clouds across the huge pit, the quarry [where Alone works] looks like a woodcut out of Dante.”

Alone is not alone. Millions of other children toil under similar working conditions--even in the U.S. Most people think that child labor has ended in America. But almost 60,000 children under 14 are illegally employed in this country, including many immigrant children who work with families in agricultural work. Amazingly enough, some children 13,100 work in sweatshops within the U.S. And as recently as 2005, Wal-Mart paid $135,000 to settle federal charges that it violated child labor laws in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Arkansas.
No, child labor--and other forms of exploitative labor--is far from over. So where are the solutions?

Child labor is a huge and complex problem. Says Birgitte Poulsen of the International Labor Organization, ''[finding a solution to child labor] is like trying to empty a bathtub with a teaspoon while the tap is running."
Child labor may be an enormous problem, but there are few problems more important. And (to not finish on a too pessimistic note) there are so many solutions. A sampling:

*providing free education for all children
*strengthening and enforcing laws that protect children from child labor
*increasing international attention on child labor, including "invisible" child labor like on family farms or in private homes
*providing stronger support for children and family through crises, such as disease, war, or natural disasters
*working to eradicate global poverty in general
Hey, readers! What's your opinion on child labor, both globally and closer to home? Do you think that poor families should be allowed to send their kids to work, if it means that the family might have a chance at escaping poverty? Do you think teens in countries like the U.S. should be allowed to work even as they continue their studies? Should kids working in artistic industries, like music and film, be allowed to work? (In the filming of Kid Nation, which premiers later this month, child actors worked 14-hour days, which some say isn't unusual in the media industry.) Do YOU have a job? Leave us a note!

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