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Elon marks Labor Day with new celebration

The event Monday in Whitley Auditorium offered a broad look at the history and accomplishments of the labor movement.

A celebration of Labor Day at Elon University on Monday combined historic anthems sung in the streets by striking workers with insights into the advances that the modern labor movement has made during the past century. 

Robin Attas, assistant professor of music, talks about songs that have played a role in the labor movement. 

"The suite of benefits that workers like to claim today like overtime pay and vacation pay and sick leave were all gained as a result of the labor movement," said Jim Bissett, professor of history. 

Bissett joined with other members of Elon's faculty for a new university event to commemorate Labor Day, a federal holiday created more than a century ago. Due to the holiday's proximity to the start of the academic year, Elon has traditionally not canceled classes and continued business operations. To help mark the holiday, Elon this year introduced a new celebration to help students, faculty and staff better understand the role and history of organized labor and the accomplishments it's made on behalf of workers.  

The new Labor Day celebration was launched at the urging of Jeff Clark, professor of mathematics, with Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science, and Brooke Barnett, associate provost for inclusive community and professor of communications, taking leading roles in organizing the event. 

More than 100 people gathered inside Whitley Auditorium for the 75-minute event that saw Robin Attas, assistant professor of music, leading the crowd in rendition of "This Land is Your Land." The classic song was written by Woody Guthrie, whose intinerant life during the Great Depression helped prompt him to become an advocate for better treatment of workers and a supporter of the labor movement. 

Ken Hassell, adjunct associate professor emeritus of art, talks about his years working as a laborer. 

‚ÄčMonday's crowd heard from Tonmoy Islam, assistant professor of economics, who offered an overview of the challenges that child laborers face working in tobacco fields around North Carolina. Ken Hassell, adjunct associate professor emeritus of art, brought personal insights to the program by recounting his years as a laborer, with jobs including retreading tires in a Chicago plant. 

"There was no recourse to management," Hassell said. "We couldn't talk about how our jobs could be safer or better. And certainly, there was not talk about wages. You either did your job, or were fired."

Better treatment of workers comes in part from the long-term efforts of organized labor, said Bissett, who offered an overview of labor unions in the United States from the mid-19th century to today. The 1950s were "the golden age of labor," with 35 percent of American workers belonging to unions in the middle part of that decade, he said. 

"They were no longer seen as radical outsiders," Bissett said of organized labor. "They were seen as an important and legitimate stakeholder in American society."

But union membership has dropped since that time, and stands at about 12 percent today, Bissett said. However, Bissett offered his take on why organized labor should be supported, saying that it benefits union members, their coworkers and the broader society. 

"On Labor Day, we have to be supporting this legitimate, functioning and important part of the American economy," he said. 

Owen Covington,
9/5/2016 2:10 PM