As Labor Day arrives amid a rather, shall we say, unique presidential race, allow us for a moment to highlight the role played by two largely forgotten presidents in the American labor movement.
First, there was Martin Van Buren, who today is best remembered for being the wild-haired eighth president of the United States — if he is remembered at all. In 1838, Van Buren facilitated the resolution of a strike by shipyard workers, providing the nation’s first government-mediated labor settlement. In 1840, he signed an executive order limiting the work of employees on federal public-works projects to 10 hours a day.
Van Buren had nothing to do with Labor Day; that would come many decades later. But he helped set in motion an era of growing respect for laborers, the kind of which we pause to acknowledge today.
Second, there was Grover Cleveland, who today is best remembered as the only president to serve non-consecutive terms — if he is remembered at all. In 1894, Cleveland signed legislation designating the first Monday in September as a legal holiday for celebrating the American worker in the District of Columbia and in U.S. territories.
Oregon, in 1887, had been the first state to formally establish Labor Day, and by 1894 nearly 30 states had followed suit. When unrest surrounding a Pullman car strike turned violent and resulted in millions of dollars in damage while paralyzing the nation’s rail system, Congress acted quickly to place Labor Day legislation on Cleveland’s desk.
All of which explains the mechanics of how today became a time for barbecues and baseball and a day off from work for most laborers. But it fails to codify the meaning behind the holiday. As the U.S. Department of Labor explains, Labor Day is “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”
Those contributions have made the United States the most powerful nation in the world, building a middle class that was the backbone of a nation that triumphed in two world wars and developed the largest economy on the globe. With current, legitimate concerns about the future prosperity of average workers and the state of the middle class in this country, Labor Day has taken on added gravitas in recent years.
Conditions have changed for workers over the years, as have the importance of organized labor. Much of that is due to legislation that has somewhat mitigated the need for unions. The five-day work week, the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, child-labor laws, and many other benefits have been a direct result of labor unions — and at the same time they have diminished the need for those unions. Less than 7 percent of private-sector employees these days belong to unions.
That, however, does not mean that all is well for modern laborers. Studies have shown that all 50 states saw a shrinkage of the middle class — typically defined as those earning between 66 and 200 percent of a state’s median income — in recent years, a statistic that speaks to the needs of rank-and-file workers.
Those workers long have provided the foundation for America’s strength. It is a foundation that is worthy of celebration today — and one deserving of the kind of support the nation’s leaders used to provide.