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Rolling cigars is a repetitive manual task that requires only the use of the hands and eyes. Back in the cigar factories of Havana in the late 1800s, Saturnino Martinez thought reading to cigar rollers would help alleviate their boredom as they silently made one cigar after after another, all day long. He hired a lector, the Spanish word for “reader” and related to our words lecture and lectern. The lector read newspapers in the morning and then classical works of literature and philosophy for the rest of the day. One of the most popular books among Cuban cigar rollers was Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, which lent its name to what many say is Cuba’s best cigar, the Montecristo Number 2. 

In 1903 in Tampa, Florida, cigar roller Jesús Fernandez objected to a lector’s choice of books

He said it contained passages that would offend the women rollers. Enrique Velázquez, another roller, disagreed. They settled the matter with pistols. Five days after being shot by Fernandez, Velázquez died.

In 1877, the American Cigar Manufacturers Association announced a 20 percent wage cut

The Cigar Makers’ Union refused to accept the pay reduction. Business owners who were members of the AMCMA retaliated by locking 7,000 New York City cigar workers out of the factories. Angry at their union’s inability to stand up to the owners, cigar workers joined with several dozen other craft unions to form a new organization, the American Federation of Labor. Member dues were six cents a year

The AFL’s goal was to get their members higher wages and better working conditions

At around the same time, Marxists, radical reformers and anarchists were busy rebelling against the privileged few, which included business owners. To make it clear to regular people that the AFL did not favor socialism, they called themselves “the conservative alternative to working class radicalism.” The AFL’s commitment to the working class included their opposition to the proposed 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It was the AFL’s view that the millions of people who do physical work and who are not rich or powerful had a cultural right to drink alcohol as they wished, without government interference. 

In 1955, the AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO

Under George Meany, it became the longest lasting and most influential labor federation in the United States. With a coalition of 56 unions and 12 million members, the AFL-CIO dwarfs the membership of its more well-known counterpart, the Teamsters Union. Overall union membership peaked in the 1950s when 33% of all American workers belonged to a union. Union membership declined slowly until an abrupt drop-off in membership triggered by President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 mass firing of 13,000 air traffic controllers. Union membership in the United States is now about 10 percent of workers.

Labor

This multipurpose word is used to describe a work activity, a group of workers who do practical work with their hands, the last stage of pregnancy, how a ship pitches and rolls in heavy seas, and the expending of effort. Who was it that said “My father taught me to work, but not to love it.”*

Top ten labor unions today
Most people believe that large corporations are anti-union

Many of them are aware that Amazon is at odds with those who want to unionize its more than 1 million employees. Most do not know that ride sharing companies alone recently spent more than $200 million to defeat a pro-union proposition in California. Some people know that twenty years ago, the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay was 15 to 1. Today, that ratio is 350 to 1. Much ado is made about a $15 minimum wage. It seems like a lot, but still adds up to just over the Federal Poverty level for a family of four.

Labor Day

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day is “an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers.” The holiday has its origins in the late 1800s, when labor activists pushed for a holiday to “recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity and well-being.”

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated in New York City in 1882

Twelve years later, U.S. President Grover Cleveland signed a law making the first Monday in September a national holiday. The History Channel says almost none of us pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers on Labor Day. These days, most people see Labor Day as the end-of-summer, back-to-school holiday. As with most holidays, Americans celebrate with parades, picnics and outings and the idea behind the celebration is lost.

It doesn’t matter if you think today’s unions are a godsend or a commie pinko plot

Rules and regulations protecting workers were non-existent in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. In the late 1880s, the typical American worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day. Children as young as six worked full-time in sweatshops, mills, factories and mines across the land. Early unions fought for better conditions for all workers.

If you are a worker who gets vacation days, personal days, sick days, weekends off and paid holidays, you might want to take a minute this Labor Day to thank the labor unions for what they did so long ago.

*Who said it?

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