The muscle and sweat behind Labor Day

Before you fire up the grill this Labor Day or check out the discounts at the stores, how about taking a moment to consider the real meaning of the day?

Labor Day. The words used to mean something.

The words used to have muscle and sweat behind them. They used to honor the labor of workers who built the industrial might of this country.  They defined a day set aside to give workers a well-earned day off but also to celebrate how workers risked their livelihoods (and sometimes their lives) to fight for the right to organize, for decent wages, reasonable hours, and safe working conditions. The concept was born out of the desire to acknowledge the struggle for a more economically and socially just society.

Labor Day should be the one day in the year when we recall how workplace reforms we now take for granted came about.  Shouldn’t we acknowledge on this day how it was organized labor—not the goodwill nor social conscience of employers —that forced an end to child labor, secured health and retirement benefits, and demanded compensation for those injured on the job?

How many of us think about those achievements this Labor Day?  In truth, the name is meaningless.  Labor Day is a joke. So why not drop the pretense and find a new moniker, like Bargain Day or End of Summer Day?  How about Barbeque Day or Must I Go Back to School Day?

Before we abandon the word labor altogether let’s recall some history

Labor Day as originally conceived was the brainchild of organized labor. The historical record is uncertain about who came up with the idea first. Still, it’s clear that the concept of a workingmen’s holiday was proposed either by Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, or Matthew Maguire, a machinist and later secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey.

Whichever of the two men proposed the idea, New York’s Central Labor Union ran with it, and the first labor day parade was celebrated in New York City on September 5, 1882.   At the time, the Central Labor Union urged other labor organizations to follow its lead in highlighting the contributions of working people. And the idea caught on. By 1885 with the rapid growth of labor unions, the holiday spread across the industrial core of the country. In 1887 Oregon became the first state to legalize the holiday.

Federalization of the holiday was born out of violence that erupted in 1894 when railway workers in Illinois went on strike to protest wage cuts.  Two strikers were killed when President Grover Cleveland sent in 12,000 federal troops to quell what became known as the Pullman Strike.  Public opinion ran hot against Cleveland’s actions.  In order to appease workers and hoping to gain their votes (he lost his re-election bid anyway), Cleveland declared Labor Day, as we now know it, a national holiday.

There’s more than history to think about this Labor Day

We should also take time this holiday to take stock of where workers and the middle class stand today.  Unfortunately, the balance sheet looks none too pretty (unless, of course, you’re a member of the 1% crowd).  Here are some astounding numbers you might want to think about while you’re waiting for the grill to fire up:

  •   Workers’ salaries are at the lowest percentage of G.D.P. since 1929, which amounts to 42.6 percent, the lowest since historical data has been kept.  American corporations, on the other side, are more profitable than ever.
  • Incomes of the bottom 90% of Americans grew on average by about $59 in the last 40 years, while incomes of the top 10% of Americans rose on average by $116,071.
  • The increase in the real value of the minimum wage since 1990 is 21%, while the increase in the cost of living since 1990 is 67%.

Those depressing (and depressed) numbers are a reflection of a struggling and diminished middle class.  But don’t be fooled by the self-serving rhetoric of the conservative/business class.  This state of affairs—this diminishment of the American Dream—is not about invisible, inevitable market forces. Rather, there is a direct correlation between the union-busting politics that gained ground in the 1980s—and are pursued with even greater zealotry today—and the decline of middle-class wages and benefits.unionincome[1]

Jared Bernstein, economist and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explains:

 The fact is that union density is much more a national policy decision than an act of nature. Unions are an institution that an advanced economy can or cannot decide to foster or suppress. More so than other advanced nations, we have taken the suppression route in recent decades. And that’s one of the reasons why American working families, despite their relatively high productivity levels, benefit significantly less from the fruits of their labor.

Bernstein concludes:

There’s no question that de-unionization is related to the decline in job quality and increase in inequality faced by many in today’s workforce.

Happy Labor Day, indeed.