Times have changed since Labor Day was first recognized as a cause for celebration. And while the holiday might seem a bit anachronistic these days, it provides an annual call for workers throughout the United States to remember and honor the benefits that have been forged by the labor movement.
Beginning in the late 1800s and throughout the 1900s, pressure from organized labor was instrumental in garnering better wages for laborers, establishing the 40-hour workweek and overtime pay, placing restrictions upon child labor, securing health benefits for employees, guaranteeing retirement benefits, and developing compensation for injured workers. Labor unions were instrumental in shaping the United States of the past 100 years and building the sturdy middle class that turned the 20th century into The American Century.
Which brings us to the anachronistic part of today’s holiday. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 160 million people age 16 and older are part of the American workforce, and 16.3 million of them are represented by a union. That rate of about 10 percent represents a marked decline from the peak of 34.8 percent of all wage and salary workers in 1954. As recently as 1983, more than 20 percent of U.S. workers were union members.
Part of the reason for the decline is the success of unions themselves. Many of the benefits unions long fought for have been codified — for example, the 40-hour workweek was amended into the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1940 — so there is less to fight for.
Another factor is the growth of an anti-union political philosophy. A 1956 poster that has become an internet meme reads “Young Republicans salute labor” while boasting of “increased union membership,” “Social Security expanded” and “best working conditions in history.” It then urges workers to “attend your union meetings!” Many modern Republicans, following the path laid out by President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, are loath to support powerful labor unions and instead work to mitigate their influence.
None of that, however, should lessen the meaning of today’s holiday. Labor Day dates back to the 1880s, with some historians saying the first observance occurred when 10,000 workers gathered for a parade in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday, and by 1894, 30 states had official celebrations. That placed political pressure upon Congress and President Grover Cleveland, who signed a national observance into law in 1894.
Since then, the holiday has acknowledged the social and economic achievements of American workers. Those are the workers who established the world’s highest standard of living, built the machines that were triumphant in World War I and World War II, developed technology that transformed humanity, and created the world’s most powerful economy. Today, despite our national penchant for focusing upon our problems, the United States economy remains 50 percent more productive than second-ranked China.
America’s workers deserve the credit. While it is in our nature to celebrate the innovators and the creators and the investors who conceive of big ideas, it is the everyday laborers who bring those ideas to fruition and make them available to the masses. It is the everyday laborers who power the U.S. economy.
Those are the people we celebrate today. For more than a century, U.S. workers have been changing the world — an accomplishment that is worthy of recognition.