If Labor Day didn’t already exist — that is, if it hadn’t become a federal holiday in 1894 — the concept wouldn’t be likely in today’s United States.
In the 129 years since President Grover Cleveland gave his stamp of approval to Labor Day, much has changed — including the rise, apex and gradual decline of organized labor. Labor Day was initially a way to pay tribute to the American worker, who toiled long hours for minimal pay in often dangerous conditions. Today, with union power on the decline, that message doesn’t resonate as much, but the need to celebrate the American worker remains.
Labor Day in modern America has become divorced from the union movement, remembered more as an end-of-summer holiday than for its roots. The holiday, celebrated this upcoming Monday, was the brainchild of one Peter McGuire, a carpenter and union leader. And in recalling Labor Day, it’s useful to remember that many of the rights we take for granted today were due to organized labor.
The union helped change many things about employer-employee relations, many for the good of both parties. For example, unions gave us the weekend. In 1870, the average workweek for most Americans was 61 hours. By 1937, labor actions — specifically, strikes demanding shorter workweeks so Americans could be home with loved ones instead of constantly toiling for their employers with minimal leisure time — created enough political momentum to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, which helped create a federal framework for a shorter workweek.
Unions also helped end child labor. The very first American Federation of Labor national convention in 1881 passed a resolution calling on states to ban children under 14 from working long hours in less-than-stellar conditions. The previously noted Fair Labor Standards Act regulated child labor on the federal level for the first time. Further, organized labor resulted in fair wages and relative income equality. When a large percentage of the American workforce belonged to a union — generally, the 1940s and 1950s — income inequality in the U.S. was at its lowest point in the history of the country. Nowadays? Not so much; there is a huge divide between the top and bottom of the economic spectrum. The decline in the middle class’s share of the national income parallels the relative decline of unions.
Today, the union is being attacked on all sides. States such as Wisconsin and Michigan, once considered unbreakable union states, are now right-to-work. They joined Florida, which has been a right-to-work state since 1944, in having less-effective unions. In right-to-work states, unions don’t have the same power they do in other states, mostly because the unions can’t force workers to pay union dues, which leads to more free-riding behavior among employees, a decline in unionization drives and, ultimately, in overall union density. As a result, workers lose out on economic growth.
All this doesn’t mean we should ditch Labor Day. It’s true that labor has changed since the first national celebration, but many of the workplace battles of yesteryear still exist. Today’s workforce is more diverse than a century ago — more women, more ethnic minorities, more older workers — but we still have the five-day workweek (with leisure-time weekends), the eight-hour workday, paid vacations, sick days and three-day holidays such as Labor Day weekend. These — and so much more — were the fruits of organized labor. All the opposition in the world can’t change that.