Thank You! – For the Weekend

By Pete Vriesenga
The Denver Musician, Winter 2008

The bumper sticker on my wife’s car is a good reminder of what we stand for: “The Labor Movement – the folks who brought you the weekend.” We often take for granted that the weekend is that time when we do our Holiday shopping, catch up with chores around the home and change the oil in the car. It’s a time when we meet the neighbors for dinner before going out for a concert, and a time when we can go to church or spend a day with family at the zoo.

It’s hard to imagine life without a weekend, but it was little more than a concept through much of the industrial revolution when men, women and children were working 10 & 16-hr days and seven-day weeks. There was a strong work ethic at the time as many of these workers came from farms, but as farmers they could still regulate their work day to maintain a healthy and sustainable regimen. Suddenly these same workers were thrust into a workplace regulated only by profit, where steam whistles signaled the start and stop of the day.

Massive worker demonstrations in the 1870s marked the beginning of a long, collective fight for the eight-hour day. Protesters were literally gunned down at Haymarket Square in Chicago and labor leaders were hanged for inflammatory speeches in support of this cause. It wasn’t until 1938 that the 40-hr. work week, along with minimum wage guarantees, child labor protections and more, were signed into law with the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Credit for this historic effort goes first and foremost to generations of workers who held out principle before their personal livelihood. But we also recognize forces and individuals outside of the labor movement who helped to champion this cause. Henry Ford, for example, hated labor unions, but he also understood that the automobile could never be sold to a population that had no time to use it. Ford gave his workers two days off long before the passing of the FLSA, and then went about promoting weekend getaways and road trips.

So, what does this have to do with making a living today as a musician? A question I often hear is “what does the union do for me?”

For starters, consider the dozens of local, publicly-funded orchestras, dance and theatre organizations in metro-Denver. They have given written assurance of compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act in their grant applications, but too often avoid paying even minimum wage. This may be acceptable for youth orchestras, but certainly not with “professional” organizations with six-figure budgets. The common loophole is to pre-classify performers (the entire orchestra?) as “volunteers.” Economic impact and job creation that should have targeted studied and accomplished performers once again fails to trickle past the bookkeeper.

Protection against this abuse was with you all along, but maybe you didn’t see it. You need only to request to be properly classified as an “employee” before the FLSA guarantees that you will be paid at at least minimum wage from this point forward. You will be protected against employer retaliation for standing up for your rights, and you shall have the right to organize a Union if you so wish.

Now ask yourself again, what does the union do for me?

  1. Ed Knox
    May 2nd, 2009 at 10:31 | #1

    (The following piece was also published in the Colorado Labor Advocate.)

    We publicly state our appreciation for the efforts and sacrifices of those who fought and died for our freedom in battles throughout history. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. This year the ‘Actual’ Memorial Day is Saturday May 30th, while the ‘Observed’ Memorial Day is Monday May 25th. “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.” (This quote is from a past VFW website posting) If you indeed are celebrating a three-day weekend for observance of Memorial Day, please at least remember those who made it possible. Your personal observance could be as simple as a moment of respectful silence.

    “For those who have fought for it, Freedom has a taste the protected will never know.”

    The above quote is seemingly for our Military and those brave Men and Women who fought valiantly for our freedoms. Surely we can also publicly appreciate the efforts and sacrifices of our ancestors in the Labor Movement who paved the pathways down which we walk today. Those people also knew the flavor of freedom.

    One very tiny piece of Labor History is marked by the Ludlow Monument near Trinidad Colorado. Take the time to go there and put yourself mentally in the battleground. Go into the pit there and feel the pain of the Women and Children who died. If not Ludlow, find another monument to the memory of our Labor ancestry. Take the time. It really isn’t a very big sacrifice of your time, is it? Your personal observance could be as simple as a moment of respectful silence.

    The Military Men and Women who have helped to protect our freedoms would ask for no special recognition, other than to return to American soil with an opportunity to succeed. The opportunity to succeed has been furthered historically by those who preceded us in the Labor Movement. I’m referring of course to those who paved the pathway for us. Those who were injured or who died in the efforts to gain the rights of Collective Bargaining deserve our respect and our gratitude; thus the observance of Workers’ Memorial Day.

    Our Soldiers all-too-often return to ‘civilian life’ as an unemployed outcast. Take a look at http://www.helmetstohardhats.com for information regarding opportunities in the Building and Construction Trades Career path. Here you can see that there is indeed a connection between the traditional Memorial Day and Labor’s version called Workers’ Memorial Day. Opportunities for success are actually abundant for our returning Veterans. Organized Labor once again helps to pave the pathway.

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