for labor day, another way to honor workers’ rights

September 2, 2019
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On this Labor Day 2019, we must understand that the holiday is more important now than when it was created in 1894.

The holiday was envisioned as a celebration of workers and their achievements. But Labor Day originated out of two of the most despicable eras in American history: slavery and the Industrial Revolution.

The legacy of slavery began with the writing of the Constitution. The Constitution was written by white males and 40% of its signatories were slaveholders. Slavery was actually a contentious part of the drafting of the Constitution. The three-fifths rule was a compromise added to the Constitution to satisfy the conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery signers of the document. Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for census and tax purposes, effectively giving slaveholding states inordinate control over Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidency for nearly 80 years. The Constitution was designed to benefit and protect white males and slaveholders because that was the group that wrote the document. Twelve of the first sixteen Presidents were slaveholders. The legacy of slavery is one of the reasons that the U.S. has been so slow to adopt a living minimum wage and worker’s rights, because American slaveholders and slavery sympathizers were accustomed to getting labor for free.

Slavery and cotton were the engines that created the entire Industrial Revolution. During the latter part of the Industrial Revolution, industrialists forced new immigrants to the U.S. and children to work 12-hour days, seven days a week just to earn barely enough to survive. Working conditions were often extremely unsafe and unsanitary. Out of these terrible conditions came calls for labor unions to renegotiate wages and legislation to protect workers. The Industrial Revolution was second era that led to the creation of the Labor Day holiday.

The first Labor Day parade was held September 5, 1882, when 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City. Calls for changes in working conditions in many cases were met with violence. Among the most notorious violent encounters between workers and companies was the Haymarket Riot in 1886, a labor protest in Chicago that turned into a riot after someone threw a bomb at the police. During the Homestead Strike of 1892 an anarchist named Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Frick, chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company. Frick had locked out the workers and hired hundreds of Pinkerton Guards to break the picket lines. In 1894 employees of the Pullman Palace Company in Chicago led by Eugene V. Debs called for a strike of all Pullman cars. The strike crippled the railway system nationwide. When the federal government sent troops to Chicago to break the strike, it set off violent encounters that left a dozen workers dead. Grover Cleveland along with Congress, in an attempt to repair relationships with workers nationwide, signed the Labor Day holiday into law in 1894. Strikes and labor unrest continued unabated throughout the next century. Forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr.’s last crusade before he was assassinated was for increased wages and benefits for union sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

During the Reagan Administration labor unions were decimated by hostile government actions. In 1983, union membership was 20% of the labor force, today union membership sits at about 10%. Union membership in the private sector is below 7%.

So what do we do to fix this issue?

It is time for a new constitutional convention. Having a new constitutional convention now makes as much sense as it did in 1789. Washington, legislators, and the constitution these legislators swore to protect and honor do not work for the majority of the people.

America has been governed by a seriously flawed constitution for 230 years. Under the current constitution we had 77 years of slavery and 100-plus years of segregation, racism and Jim Crow.

Now income equality has led to unprecedented inequities between the haves and have-nots. It is time for a change to correct these years of inequality, inequality that was intentionally and painstakingly built into the constitution by the Founding Fathers and the legislators who followed.

These changes must come from a truly different and representative swath of the American public: we need Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, women and the LGBTQ community included in the framing of the new constitution. Imagine how including these groups in writing the legislation to protect citizens from discrimination and exploitation might improve the constitution. Imagine legislation that protects the rights of citizens and immigrants to work and receive a living wage and how enforcement might be strengthened by inclusion of these groups in a constitutional convention. This inclusive group would be sure to include the Equal Rights Amendment in its constitutional convention, an amendment which has floundered under the current constitution.

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Many people bristle at the idea of changing the constitution. They are mostly white Americans who use the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as patriotic shields for inequality and to continue the status quo. Their misplaced love and admiration of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution is not merited. We have to ask ourselves: Does a great document, written by great people worthy of admiration, include counting Blacks as three-fifths of a person, propping up slavery and denying women equal rights?

The Constitution was only written because the Articles of Confederation, a document written after the U.S. declared its independence from Britain, was not working. The Articles of Confederation established a weak central government to stop individual states from conducting their own foreign policy. The U.S. colonies were at war with Britain when the Articles of Confederation were written in 1777. After the war the need to pay off the debt precipitated the writing of a new set of laws to govern the United States and centralize the government. The U.S. Constitution was the result in 1789.

There are two ways to add Amendments to the Constitution. One way is to have an amendment pass with a two-thirds vote in each House of Congress and then it is ratified by three-fourths of the states. This process has always been used to add all the current amendments to the Constitution.
There also another untested way to call a constitutional convention called an “Article V Convention” where two-thirds of the state legislatures call for a constitutional convention to add Amendments to the constitution once they are ratified by three-fourths of the states.

A well-funded, dark money effort to have an Article V Convention led by some of the most conservative groups and individuals in the U.S. is already underway. The Mercer family and the Koch Brothers-funded group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have targeted Republican-controlled legislatures. They have persuaded 28 states to pass Article V Convention calls since 2011. With their under-the-radar support and organization, these groups need only six more states to call an Article V Convention, which at this point would have no rules to guide it. These groups are basing their support on the Balanced Budget Amendment but there are no rules to say they cannot add more amendments once they start the convention.

Some of the amendments submitted by conservatives besides the Balanced Budget Amendment have included: English Language Amendment, Line Item Veto, Prayer in School, Right to Life, Flag Desecration and Congressional Term Limits.

These ultra-conservative groups are trying to make a new constitutional convention inevitable. And when you see their agenda it becomes crystal clear why it is imperative to have a fully inclusive representation of the U.S. crafting a new constitution.

So as we honor workers and their achievements this Labor Day we need to seriously consider a new constitutional convention to correct the inequities of the previous constitution.