This weekend we celebrate Labor Day, but how many of us have any idea where the holiday came from or what it celebrates? The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5th, 1882 in New York City and was proposed by the Central Labor Union (CLU) at a time when American workers were struggling for basic rights such as the eight-hour day. The CLU moved the “workingman’s holiday” to the first Monday in September in 1883 and urged other unions to celebrate the date as well. The movement grew throughout the 1880s, along with the American labor movement itself with 23 states passing legislation recognizing Labor Day as a holiday. By 1894 Congress followed suit and Labor Day became a national holiday.
On that date, in 1894, most American workers still did not have an eight-hour day, the right to organize, social security, health care, or even a living wage. Child labor was common and there were no health and safety laws. Indeed, just being a unionist could get you fired or even killed in some quarters. During the Progressive era, union activism began to bring some basic reforms, but it was not until the New Deal era in the 1930s that most of the basic rights we take for granted were won and enshrined by the Wagner Act. And even then, many workers, like those in the fields and in the public sector were left out. It wasn’t until the 1960s that public sector workers got the right to organize at the federal level and that only became true in education in California in the 1970s.
For much of the 20th century, Labor Day was a real celebration of American workers with parades, picnics, and speeches dedicated to the struggles and triumphs of American unions. Slowly, as the American Labor Movement declined and unionized workers were assailed and successfully demonized, the meaning of the holiday has been largely erased from public memory. People enjoy their weekends, but they’ve forgotten or never learned about the struggles that made our weekends even possible.
We lose this history at our peril.
Indeed, in the midst of the current public health and economic crises, we are still facing levels of economic inequality not seen since the 1930s along with a host of new threats to worker health and workplace rights. Before the pandemic, corporate profits were at an all-time high while the wages of the average worker measured as a percentage of the economy are at an all-time low. Since the COVID-19 crisis, the billionaire class has seen a huge increase in their net worth while millions of ordinary Americans have suffered—losing jobs or healthcare, seeing government services cut, being pushed out of their homes, and more. The painful irony is that while many were quick to celebrate “front line heroes,” little has been done to improve their long term economic and social well-being.
Indeed, despite a healthy 65% of Americans supporting unions, the corporate world is still abusing workers’ rights and fighting organizing drives while the President and his allies viciously attack unions on the public stage.
We see these attacks because the American labor movement, for better or worse, is still the only organized source of political power for ordinary working Americans. Despite the decline labor has seen as a result of internal factors like the failure to organize new sectors of the economy and external factors such as globalization, the decades-long political assault on unions, and bipartisan austerity politics, labor still has the ability to take on, out-organize, and defeat big money.
Simply put, the lords of the global economy don’t like having unions around. Unions, for instance, are the one force in American life that has effectively insisted that the rich be made to pay their fair share in taxes to serve the public good. Thus, as bad as things seem now with regard to the power of moneyed interests in our politics and social life, if the forces seeking to totally eliminate the American labor movement succeed, the transformation of our democracy into an unchallenged plutocracy will be complete.
That’s why even folks who aren’t in a union should care what happens to them.
Along those lines, I am encouraged this Labor Day by examples of how labor has dedicated itself to reaching out to form new and real alliances with other progressive organizations and community groups as well as opening its doors to non-union workers who will now be able to join the fold. Actions by fast food workers, teachers’ and hotel workers’ strikes, coalitions with immigrants’ rights groups, alliances with Black Lives Matter, and labor, environmental, and community groups standing together to demand a just recovery that addresses the looming threat of climate change are all recent bright spots that speak of exciting future possibilities.
This, of course, is not a new idea. It harkens back to the long tradition of social justice unionism that includes the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, who all, in one form or another, broke free from the narrow constraints of business unionism, which only sought a bigger piece of the pie for their members, to embrace a vision of social transformation that included questioning how the pie got made and distributed. In sum, they asked what a just society for all workers would look like and set about to make it real.
We have much to thank them for. They are the folks who brought you the weekend and the idea that democracy belongs to everyone, not just those who seek to buy it.
In the midst of our current crisis and growing inequality we need to remember the voices that seek to raise everybody up and proclaim that, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” All workers everywhere, union and non-union, deserve a decent job, basic rights, and the dignity that comes with work. But when we assert this, we raise fundamental questions of justice. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who died while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, once said, “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
In this proposition we find the true meaning of Labor Day.