Sonny's Corner


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Sonny Foster"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.

Early this summer we invited many of our friends in the organized labor movement to prepare appropriate thoughts for the upcoming Labor Day. We were pleasantly surprised when we were overwhelmed with many thoughtful pieces. Unfortunately our print edition layout did not contemplate so many words so we squeezed in a few into our September print edition and are publishing all that we received on this web edition.

Thanks to all who took their time to prepare their remarks and we hope you enjoy reading them.

In the U.S. Labor Day Wasn’t Always Celebrated in September

By John Kretzschmar

The holiday we call Labor Day is a contradiction. It is a holiday to relax and enjoy family and friends, not a day to labor. Nevertheless, thoughtful people use it as a time to reflect on the current state of American labor.

As a federal holiday, Labor Day is older than Mothers’ or Fathers’ Day. The first time Labor Day was celebrated in September was in 1882, when the New York City Knights of Labor held a parade in honor of organized labor’s contributions to expanding democracy, humanizing the employment relationship and improving the nation’s quality of life. It took another 12 years for it to become the federal holiday we know as Labor Day.

It surprises most Americans that unions and their allies were annually celebrating the ability of unions to extend democracy into the workplace as far back as the 1790s! Labor unions date back to colonial times, and by the 1790s labor unions, composed of shoemakers, coopers, printers, shipwrights, carpenters and other skilled crafts, existed in the major port cities of the emerging nation. These unions, together with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican societies of the day, took the Fourth of July as their day. They joined together to drink toasts to “The Fourth of July, may it ever prove a momento [sic] to the oppressed to rise and assert its rights.”

People who sold their intelligence, experience and strength to an employer were likewise without an independent voice in the workplace and understood the analogy. Unions believed that introducing a democratic voice into the workplace was a natural extension of what the 13 colonies did when they united to gain a voice in determining the nation’s future. The Fourth of July served as a symbolic date with which the nascent labor movement identified.

Those workers understood the employer/employee relationship was unequal at its core. It had evolved from the master/servant relationship where the power imbalance was quite clear. Employers, like masters before them, had the unilateral right to make all the decisions within the workplace. The essential right that an employee had, which a servant did not, was the right to quit. Individual employees knew that only through uniting in solidarity, as the 13 colonies had done, could employees gain the collective strength to work out issues critical to jointly determining their future quality of life.

By the 1820s and 1830s the Fourth of July celebration of organized labor’s contributions had become tradition. Labor unions and Workingmen’s Parties had settled on the Fourth of July as a day for parades, festivals and picnics. The Philadelphia Workingmen’s Association viewed unions as patriotic. Here is one slogan from the 1830s: “The objects we have in view are hallowed by the sympathy of patriotism—it is to finish the glorious work of the revolution.”

The theme of renewing “the Spirit of 1776” was an important symbol. Advocates wanted to expand unionism into every workplace where employers reduced workers to nothing more than costs to be controlled. They saw their work as completing “the unfinished work” of the American Revolution. Organized labor’s annual use of the Fourth of July became a tradition lasting until the 1880s.

Not until the 1870s did the majority of the American workforce become employees. Even then, the employment relationship was nowhere as humanized as it is today. It was common to work 10- to 16-hour days and put in six- and seven-day workweeks. The workplace was quite dangerous, and the pay was very low. The changes that we too often take for granted today did not come easily nor did they result in the generosity of employers realizing that they were working their employees too long and paying them too little. Organized labor worked hard and long with as many allies as it could find to accomplish giving ordinary employees a shot at achieving the “American Dream.”

Today, too often the workforce sees itself as a group of individuals, working in individual silos, with little appreciation of the concept that “we are all in this together.” Today’s employees do not know the history of American labor unions or that their foremothers and forefathers were the key actors in humanizing the employment relationship. There is little appreciation for either the sacrifices it took or the idea that “there’s strength in numbers” when it comes to the workplace.

In today’s economy Americans can no longer merely regard Labor Day as the last long weekend of the summer. It is time to remember Labor Day as a celebration of organized labor’s contribution to ensuring that our nation’s prosperity is fairly shared. It is a time to dedicate ourselves to understanding that employees are more than merely costs to be controlled. It is time to expand meaningful democracy into the workplace. It is a time for reapplying “the Spirit of 1776” to expand unionism into places where it does not now exist, and to once again help ordinary working families have a shot at the American Dream.

John Kretzschmar is the director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies. During his work life, he has been a member of industrial, construction and public sector unions.

It is to the real advantage of every producer, every manufacturer, and every merchant to cooperate in the improvement of working conditions because the best consumer of American Industry is the well-paid worker.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States, Oct. 16, 1936

Let’s Talk Product

By Jim Celer

Let’s talk product.

Product (capital P) is the point of any enterprise, the end result of a process, the reason the process exists. Everything an organization does is directed to the making and delivery of the Product. Organizations, it could be said, are support systems for the Product.

For example, the Product of NBC is the image and sound coming out of your TV when it’s tuned to that network. The Product of General Motors is the vehicle the salesperson hands you the keys to. The Product of Burger King is what’s in the bag handed to you through the drive-through window.

The Product of government is service—a stable society in which to “pursue happiness”; safe roads; functioning traffic lights, clean parks; a creditable school system.

And here’s the thing: no governor, no matter how popular, patrols the state highways. No mayor, no matter how powerful, mows the park’s grass. No CEO, no matter how many billions he has, is flipping the burgers in every store, attaching the steering wheels to every car.

There’s a notion in America today that the only ones who count are the managers, the moguls, the executives. An Ayn Rand feeling abounds: no taxes, no regulations, no shackles of any kind on the Atlases of the economy.

But the economy itself exists to provide you with Product. It exists solely as a means for us to pursue happiness by receiving Product.

And so, we celebrate Labor.

We often think of labor unions for their defensive functions: protecting worker rights, ensuring fair wages and safe workplaces. We appreciate that. But on Labor Day, we celebrate Labor—not what unions do for laborers but what laborers do for us, for all of us. As we amuse ourselves, express ourselves, labor ourselves.

What’s your favorite Product? Your car? Feeling secure in your home? The latest from Lady Gaga? A mango smoothie?

Whatever, it’s something you enjoy. And it may have been thought up by an executive, funded by an executive, authorized by an executive.

But it was made by a laborer. It was handed to you by a laborer. If left just to the executive, it would not exist.

You can enjoy life because of labor—your own, and that of others.

We should never forget that. We should, in fact, celebrate it.

Happy Labor Day.

Jim Celer works for Nebraska Health and Human services in Omaha and has been an NAPE/AFSCME member since 2000. He writes the Omaha Liberal Examiner column, which can be read at

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a letter to his brother, Edgar Newton Eisenhower, Nov. 8, 1954

What Labor Day Means to Me

By John E. Corrigan

One of my favorite lines from any movie is from Thorton Melon, Rodney Dangerfield’s wealthy but uneducated character in “Back to School” from 1986. Melon learns, after trying very hard, that he simply can’t buy an education and he has to actually do the work himself. In an exam he’s asked to recite Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” After miraculously remembering each line, Melon is asked, “What does that poem mean to you?” His reply is classic Dangerfield; “It means I’m not going to take s!@# from nobody. I’m going to pass this test.” Funny as it is, the line goes a long way toward stating a simple truth about the power that comes with knowledge. When we are empowered with understanding and knowledge, we can face difficult challenges with confidence. In thinking about what Labor Day means to me, I immediately thought of the efforts of John Kretzschmar and Edgar Moore in educating not only the students of Nebraska about the labor movement, but the members of the labor movement themselves about its history and significance. This is the kind of understanding and knowledge that provides working people with the confidence to face the many challenges we see in our times.

Labor Day itself is as much an American ritual as it is a recognition of the contributions of organized labor. It is celebrated in union towns, large and small, and in towns that haven’t seen a union since the Civil War. Each year in September the American people are encouraged to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of labor as part of the fabric of our national identity. With the establishment of the Labor Day holiday, it became undeniable that organized labor had made America a better place to work and to live, but the appreciation of this contribution to our daily lives is not uniformly understood or appreciated by the American people. Those who have immersed themselves in the struggle to improve working conditions for their brothers and sisters know full well why the celebration of Labor Day is an important public affair. The outward demonstration of solidarity is necessary to impress upon the community at large that the labor movement is an integral component of a just and healthy economy. To me, Labor Day is an opportunity to remind my neighbors, my friends and my own family about why it is important to live our lives in a manner that rewards and honors those who have the courage to insist that democracy in the workplace is as important today as it was when the labor movement was fighting corporate ownership of government at the turn of the last century. This is what it’s “all about,” but what can it mean to our daily lives if we try to live the message of the labor movement? After the speeches, the marches, the picnics and the good times of our celebration are over, we still have the opportunity on a daily basis to celebrate labor by exercising our economic decisions wisely. When you are at the grocery store, do not be afraid to buy a loaf of bread that was prepared by an operating engineer or a box of cereal that was boxed by a grain miller (Kelloggs) or a cut of meat prepared by a UFCW member (Hormel or Omaha Steaks).

Reduced to its essentials, the labor movement is an acknowledgment that our economy must work for people and not vice versa. When the voices of labor are not heard in the state houses, in Congress and in the courthouses of our country, it is only a matter of time before we return to the days when governments become subsidiaries of corporate interests. There are people all over Nebraska who are tirelessly working to ensure a different future for our children. On Labor Day we celebrate them and the men and women like them who have, through the decades, done their part. Empowered and confident, we must continue to do ours.

John E. Corrigan is an attorney with Dowd Howard & Corrigan, LLC, in Omaha, Neb.

Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor. But their work goes beyond their own jobs and even beyond our borders.”
—John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, speech, Aug. 30, 1960

What Labor Day Means to Me

By Mike Zgud

As I reflect on what Labor Day means to me, the word “responsibility” comes to mind. As current labor leaders we have the responsibility to remember those who came before us and worked to get us where we are today. There were the workers who toiled in obscurity under horrible conditions who never had the protections we have today. I think about my immigrant Polish grandfather, Lewis Galusky, a West Virginia coal miner who worked in extremely dangerous conditions. In addition, he and his fellow workers were economically hostage to the company they worked for, being paid in company scrip. My mother related to me that she and her sister went to the company office and asked for an actual check so that they could buy shoes at a regular store instead of the company store. I never met my grandfather as he died of black lung disease before I was born. I feel an affinity to the United Mine Workers who struggle not only for safe working conditions, but also for economic justice. This is but one example and was repeated in many industries, trades and public-sector unions. We stand on their shoulders and need to honor their memory.

The other responsibility is for those who will come after us. In the current anti-worker, anti-union climate, those gains of our forebears are being threatened on every front and in almost every state and sector of the economy. There is a real possibility that our children and grandchildren will not work in situations where they have the safe conditions we have now. Further, the economic threat to all is great with attacks on collective bargaining, pensions and the basic right to organize.

Those of today are a true “Sandwich Generation” caught between the accomplishments of the pasts and the hopes of the future. We today have the responsibility to fight in every way to preserve and expand worker’s rights and economic prosperity. We need to fight economically and particularly politically to hold our ground. It can’t be done by just a few leaders but will take the whole labor movement to mobilize the forces that would have us disappear to run roughshod over working people. 2012 will be a pivot year for the future of our nations. Let us all embrace our responsibility!

Mike Zgud is a resident of Kearney and a 29-year state employee. He is a member of NAPE/AFSCME Local 61 and serves on the executive board. In addition, Zgud is president of the Central Nebraska Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and is also a member of the Nebraska State AFL-CIO Executive Board.

All that harms labor is treason to American. No line can be drawn between these two. If a man tells you he loves America, yet he hates labor, he is a liar. If a man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.”
—Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States

What Does Labor Day Mean to Me?

By John F. Bourne

I am a proud member of the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). Like a lot of our people I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I can build something, something where I can show and tell my family, friends and neighbors that “I did that.” What I have as a worker, whether it would be a decent benefit, a good wage or whatever, did not come without a price to some worker who came before me.

Electricity, when it started was almost like magic. When people worked with it “in the old days,” they did not have the training about what it was or what it could do. They did not have any type of safety program like we do today. In fact at the turn of the century three out of five people that were installing the electrical lines to our homes and workplaces were being killed every year. While I am sure they were afraid, they needed to make a living for their family—they had to climb the poles, they had to work on the circuits in the alleyways, they had to work on the “arc” lamps up and down the streets of towns across America because they had to make a living. These people traveled from town to town installing what we now call the “grid.”

The IBEW started as a fraternal organization—called the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (NBEW) at the time since there was only a national organization back then—with its main benefit being a death benefit if the person was killed on the job. The NBEW almost went bankrupt due to all the death-benefit claims at one point.

I received my training through an apprenticeship program that is second to none. Safety has been part of my whole working career; my equipment is the best money can buy. I can only imagine what it must have been like to work back then. No proper equipment, really and truly they didn’t have the training for what they were doing, and people in all kinds of weather, in all kinds of conditions, went out to make their families a living with low pay, no benefits, just hopes and dreams and trying to make a living. OSHA, health insurance, 40-hour week, decent working conditions, safety—are you kidding? Those things sure didn’t exist back then.

So then, what does Labor Day mean to me? A lot of sacrifice, a lot of work, a lot of fear, a lot of injuries, but a lot of proud people. People who were unafraid to face the conditions of the times, people that did what they had to do and I don’t believe complained about it. I look at the old pictures of Labor Day parades in my hometown, and I see our people walking in the parade in their best suits and ties, straight-backed and proud, proud of who they were and what they did. Proud of what they built, proud of being able to take care of their families, just like I am. Labor Day means a lot to me, and it really should mean a lot to all of us as someone, a lot of someones, paid a price for all of us.

John F. Bourne is a journeyman wireman for IBEW Local #22 in Omaha, Neb., and a long-time Nebraska labor leader.

Join the union, girls, and together say Equal Pay for Equal Work.”
—Susan B. Anthony, March 18, 1869

Labor Day

By Patrick Nilsen

No festival of martial glory or warrior’s renown is this; no pageant pomp of war-like conquest, no glory of fratricidal strife attend this day. It is dedicated to peace, civilization and the triumphs of industry. It is a demonstration of fraternity and the harbinger of a better age—a more chivalrous time, when labor shall be best honored and well rewarded.” —Peter J. McGuire, Father of Labor Day

On Sept. 5, 1882 on the streets of New York a parade of more than 10,000 workers celebrated the first Labor Day. For most of us, Labor Day marks the end of the last long weekend of summer. It is a day for parades, hot dogs, relaxing and, perhaps, reflection on the blessings of being productive members of the middle class. That wasn’t always the case, however. Men like United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) founder Peter McGuire and fellow union pioneer Samuel Gompers fought both literally and politically to turn concepts like the eight-hour workday, equal pay for women and paid overtime into reality.

McGuire, known as the “Father of Labor Day,” first brought up the idea of setting aside a day to honor “the strength and dignity of labor” at a meeting in New York City in May 1882. But the concrete for creating a national holiday midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving was not poured until McGuire was invited to speak at a labor festival in Toronto in July of that year.

A parade at the Canadian festival sparked the inspiration, and McGuire joined with the Knights of Labor later that year to celebrate the first Labor Day. The idea spread quickly, and two years later virtually every major city held a Labor Day parade of worker solidarity. As always, the lobbying took a little longer but came to fruition June 28, 1894, when, by an act of Congress, Labor Day was officially made a federal holiday on the first Monday in September.

For members of the UBC, Labor Day has a special place in our hearts. One hundred and twenty-nine years ago men like McGuire had an idea to honor labor and to work for things that many 21st-century union workers tend to take for granted, such as the eight-hour work day, child labor laws and weekends off. Labor Day is more than just the end of summer. It is a day of rest for those who labor. It is a day of remembrance, a day of thanksgiving to those who came before that believed in fairness in the workplace. These were not easy to get in the days of McGuire; they were paid for in sweat and blood. It’s a thought to keep in mind when grilling those Labor Day hot dogs.

Patrick Nilsen is the political director/field coordinator for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. This article is submitted courtesy of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (Omaha District Council).

Although it is true that only about 20 percent of American workers are in unions, that 20 percent sets the standards across the board in salaries, benefits and working conditions. If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions. One thing that corporations do not do is give out money out of the goodness of their hearts.”
—Molly Ivins, newspaper columnist, liberal political commentator and humorist

What Labor Day Means from a Woman’s Perspective

By Julie Dake Abel

Labor Day is a time that many people see as time off. From a labor perspective, it should be a time we are all reminded of the people that came before us that fought for decent jobs for all working-class people. For many women, Labor Day is a time we often donate our time and energy to the labor movement because, unfortunately, women are still undervalued in the workplace. This is something that we should all keep in the forefront of our mind on Labor Day and every day.

Women were great contributors to the long-standing movement of fighting for better jobs and a better quality of life for all women. Many women have come before us that fought for greater equality in the workplace. During World War II, the face of the workforce was totally changed. Rosie the Riveter is one person that comes to mind for many of us. Rosie the Riveter and other women came out in droves to the workforce to help out at home while their husbands, fathers and sons fought for us overseas. This was a very significant time in labor history that helped show the country that women were valuable in the workplace and should be valued by others.

Even with those great strides that our foremothers fought for, women are still underrated when it comes to their place in the workforce. Women are still underpaid compared to their male counterparts, even though more and more women are becoming the breadwinners of the family. While women make up a large part of the public-employees sector, they still only make 77 cents on the dollar compared with men. Yet they are primarily the people that care for the children, determine and distribute Medicaid and food stamps and, ironically, are the largest recipients of them.

Additionally, with today’s attack on public-sector workers, women are disproportionately hurt. Overall, they are the recipients of more layoffs in government than their male counterparts. So it is more crucial than ever that women continue to stand up for true equality for all workers. It would heed us well to remember to all stand up together for one another, as an injury to one is an injury to all. This is so that we may all be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor and continue to pave the way for greater equality for all.

Julie Dake Abel is the executive director of NAPE/AFSCME Local 61. NAPE/AFSCME is the largest local union in the state of Nebraska. This union represents state employees, as well as city, county and some employees at Nebraska’s state colleges.

History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.

Labor Day

By Gregg Rhoades

Labor Day for me is complex. It is a day to “celebrate” as a union brotherhood that we are still an active and vital part of America’s workforce in 2011. It is a day to “reflect” and think of all the work that has yet to be done. It is a day to “study” and learn from our mistakes as well as our successes. It is a day to “teach” all of those that will come after us to fight for justice in the workplace. Finally, it is a day to “mourn” for all of those who gave their lives for the benefits, conditions and laws that all of us in organized labor enjoy today.

Gregg D. Rhoades is a second-generation Union Cement Mason and 27-year member and current business manager of The Operative Plasterers & Cement Masons Local #538 in Omaha, Neb.

A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned—this is the sum of good government.
—Thomas Jefferson


By Nancy Fulton

The Nebraska State Education Association, along with the National Education Association, is a labor union organized by, and for, teachers and education support professionals.

While we organize as a labor union, our overarching goal is clearly put forth in our association bylaws, where NSEA’s vision statement simply says this: Our vision is a great public education for every student.

It is with good reason that students are the focus of our vision statement perspective: a free, public education for every child promotes, enhances and furthers the quality of our democracy. Indeed, a free system of public education is the foundation of American society.

But public education does little good for our way of life if it is substandard. And therein lies much of the reason for our association’s existence. Certainly, we exist to bargain for better wages and working conditions for our members. We are professionals who have exercised our constitutional right to organize, form and join a union for purposes of collective bargaining and due-process rights. That’s the American way of exercising our rights to protect our individual liberty and to ensure just compensation for our professional work. The decades of discrimination, inequities and injustices against teachers and support staff still continue in this 21st century.

Enhanced pay and benefits attract better candidates to the profession and, more important, keep those candidates in the profession—with the exception of good parenting, there is no greater influence on a child’s education than a quality teacher at the front of the classroom. Thus, better pay contributes to that great education for every student.

Just as importantly, we also work in the political arena to improve the learning conditions and opportunities for our students; that’s because everything in the public-school world is affected by politics. Smaller class size, improved curriculum, additional funding, transportation, safe and secure schools, high academic standards, quality student assessment—NSEA works with policymakers on each of these issues and more to make the public school experience valuable for our children.

NSEA members are stronger together than they are standing alone. Recent experiences support that statement. We have to defend our rights against the radical right and narrow special interests (oil billionaires, Wall Street investment firms, global corporations) pursuing their self-interest against those of us who are struggling to maintain a middle-class standard of living.

NSEA was organized in August 1867 in Brownville. Nebraska had gained statehood just five months earlier. NSEA is the oldest professional association in the state.

Thus, our members stand upon 144 years of political involvement and responsibility to ensure, first, that our children get the high-quality education they deserve and, second, that our 28,000 teachers and education support professionals and their families are paid fairly and can retire with dignity and without concerns about living in poverty.

Those are responsibilities that we take seriously. They will not be abandoned, forsaken or compromised.

Nancy Fulton is president of the Nebraska State Education Association.


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