Labor omnia vincit. Latin for “work conquers all” as any Oklahoma third-grader will attest. They learn the state motto right after they memorize the words to “Oklahoma!” and have the make-believe land run in the multipurpose room.

An interesting thought, that work conquers all. It always makes me wonder how the Love Conquers All romantics react, but it’s Labor Day, not Valentine’s Day, so let’s stick with the sweat of the brow over the sweaty palms of first dates, eighth-grade dances, and other adolescent miseries.

Labor omnia vincit is a paraphrase of two lines from “The Georgics,” a poem by Virgil probably published in 29 BC meant to encourage Roman Empire citizens to go back to farming for a living in keeping with Caesar Augustus’ strategy. In the poem’s context, the better translation is “anything can be achieved if proper work is applied,” but doesn’t make for a very catchy poem and it’s much too wordy to be a snappy motto. Pop it in the online Latin-English translator and you get “Toil overcomes.”

It’s a popular motto, especially among labor unions, including the International Union of Operating Engineers and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. It was also the motto of the American Federation of Labor’s first African American union — the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, when it was founded in 1925.

Cities and states like it too. León, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, uses it, as do the Mexican state of Zacatecas and a plethora of high schools from Jamaica to Australia, Canada to Kenya.

Labor unions were in Oklahoma from the beginning, in Indian territory, then Oklahoma Territory, and were first dominated by miners and railroad workers. But in a national first, the labor unions got together in Shawnee, where they drafted a list of 24 demands they wanted written into the new state’s first Constitution in 1907. Among the items known as the Shawnee Demands were an eight-hour workday, twice-monthly pay, compulsory education, a labor commissioner, and a ban on most forms of child labor as well as contract convict labor.

At the Constitutional Convention, Charles Haskell, Oklahoma’s first governor, presented AFL founder Samuel Gompers with the pens used to sign the Constitution and a resolution "in commemoration of the first Constitution that has ever been written in the United States in which the labor interests have taken a part, the same protecting the interests of the common people more fully than any other Constitution in the United States."

Now, Oklahoma is in the bottom third for organized labor. The state is 36th by the percentage of employees covered by union benefits (7.4) and is also 36th by the percentage of workers who are union members (5.7). That’s a long way from union-heavy Hawaii, New York, Washington and Alaska where 20 percent or more of workers are covered and more than 18 percent are members.

Although Oklahoma is in the bottom third in union membership, it’s in the top fourth in a ranking of the hardest-working states published this week by WalletHub. Oklahoma ranks 12th, just ahead of Kansas. The study considered the average number of hours worked per week, time off taken, number of people with more than one job and seven other criteria.

North Dakota came in first but really, what else is there to do in North Dakota?

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if Labor had not first existed. Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” —Abraham Lincoln

I wonder if he knew the words to “Oklahoma!”


© Ted Streuli, 2019

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