Labor Day isn’t what it used to be.
Started in the 1880s to honor organized labor, the celebration first received official designation as a holiday in 1887 in Oregon. Soon, most states had recognized the occasion, and the federal government followed suit — initially providing a holiday only for federal workers.
Now, Labor Day is typically used to recognize all American workers — organized or not. And with good reason. As Teddy Roosevelt reportedly said, “It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.”
That labor, effort, energy and courage has built the world’s largest economy. It has turned the vision of dreamers into products for mass consumption. It has produced innovation that has transformed the world.
All of that is worthy of acknowledgement today, even with labor unions seeing diminished influence over the past six decades. In 1954, 34.8 percent of all wage and salary workers in the United States belonged to a union, giving organized labor powerful political influence. In 1956, as President Dwight Eisenhower was winning reelection, the Republican Party platform said, “Protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively is the firm and permanent policy of the Eisenhower Administration.”
Now, however, about 10.3 percent of U.S. workers are unionized. In Washington, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number is 18.6 percent, ranking among the five most-unionized states.
One reason for the decline is that organized labor has been effective over the decades in winning concessions for workers. Pressure from labor unions helped drive legislation creating the 40-hour workweek, safer working conditions, improved benefits and countless other amenities now codified in law. Legislation at both the federal and state levels has helped improve the lives of American workers and lessened the need for unions.
In Washington, for example, voters in 2016 boosted the minimum wage and approved annual increases based on the cost-of-living index. The 2021 minimum of $13.69 an hour is among the highest in the nation. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage has languished at $7.25 an hour since 2009 — a floor that is in effect in 20 states.
Increased wages is one way to improve the conditions for millions of workers. But other steps are available, as well.
Many changes will be required as employment becomes increasingly nontraditional. More and more workers are part of the gig economy, pursuing jobs that are temporary and flexible. They often are mislabeled as independent contractors (for example, Uber drivers), allowing employers to get around wage and overtime laws. Policymakers should address this discrepancy, providing protection for workers.
And changes will be required to bolster worker benefits and retirement savings. Traditional pensions now are rare, but few Americans have compensated by adequately saving for retirement. Experts recommend that at least 10 percent of earnings go toward savings.
Washington in recent years has taken several legislative steps to improve the lives of workers. And according to nonprofit Oxfam America, our state has ranked as the best for workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — thanks to strong protections for employees, access to health care and unemployment support.
All of that is worthy of consideration as we celebrate Labor Day — and as we reflect on the meaning of the holiday.