The history of Labor Day and what to do with it now
Among most people I know, if we celebrate Labor Day at all, it’s with family and friend get-togethers around a going grill or a last visit to the nearest beach or swimming pool for that last taste of summer before the school year takes hold. In southwest Arkansas over the past 20 years, it has usually signaled the arrival of more reasonable temperatures, normal summer temperatures as opposed to the pollution-induced broiling we’ve endured since mid-May. 

But Labor Day began in the early 1880s as a display of the power of organized workers. It’s thought that either New York-area union leaders Peter J. McGuire or Matthew Maguire were the first to propose a holiday and parade devoted to the cause of workers getting together. The first Labor Day parade, held in Manhattan in 1882, drew tens of thousands and ushered in a day-long festival of speeches, picnics and concerts. New York became the first state to recognize a Labor Day holiday and in the period from 1887-94, 27 states gave their civil workers that day off. 

The pivotal year for Labor Day to go national was 1894, when Congress passed and President Grover Cleveland, in what is thought to be an attempt by Cleveland to make amends to workers for strongarm tactics to supress the Pullman Strike before that year’s elections, signed a law that June making the first Monday in September a holiday for all federal workers. Many states afterward passed laws for a day off for their own government workers. 

The organization of labor into local unions and the organization of those unions into federations like the American Federation of Labor or the Congress of Industrial Organizations (which merged in 1955) proved a potent political force, with wages lifted, working conditions improved and worker benefits becoming standard for unionized workers by the 1950s. The threat of strikes and the financial and reputational blow of seeing them carried out was enough to compel companies to negotiate with union leaders. 

But decades of reverses ensued, starting in the 1930s, caused by the corruption of leaders, the encroachment of organized crime, and—most important—corporations becoming more able to hamstring union expansion and actions by influencing state legislators, Congressmen and presidents to pass and sign Right-to-Work laws. (These prevent unions and employers from agreeing to closed shops, preventing the hiring of non-union workers.) Union membership has gradually been driven down, a trend that has persisted for over 70 years.  

By the way, Arkansas passed its own Right-to-Work law as a constitutional amendment in 1944, tying with Florida to be the first state to pass such a law. Given the state of politics in Little Rock, it does not seem likely Arkansas will repeal this amendment. 

Then, in our era of globalization of labor, a company can always respond to its organizing workers here by threatening to move to a less developed country. This is a difficult problem to which the solution, retaliatory tariffs against those companies, seems a non-starter with both political parties. 

Now union membership is down to 10.1 percent of workers in the U.S., down from an already depressed 20.1 percent in 1983 when those numbers were first compiled, and you seldom see Labor Day parades except in the larger cities. New union efforts at most non-unionized workplaces have to contend with professional resistance from firms like Labor Relations Institute.  

Even an otherwise optimistic union proponent like journalist Kim Kelly, who contributes to the visibility of Labor in as unexpected a venue as Teen Vogue and last year published the marvelous Fight Like Hell!: The Untold History of American Labor was none-too-enthused about Labor Day as she wrote in her 2019 article titled “Labor Day is a Government Scam.” “Even if the holiday wasn’t intended to be a rip-off, it sure is now. The day that the Department of Labor says ‘celebrates and honors the greatest worker in the world — the American worker’ only applies to some workers who have the luxury of a set schedule, and whose employers allow them to take that Monday off. For many workers, especially those in the fast food and restaurant industries, where businesses seldom close on federal holidays, and independent contractors, Labor Day is just another day on the clock. So much for being celebrated.” 

At the least, we should throw our own cookouts, doing our shopping for them ahead of time, to provide those who do have to work in restaurants and stores a little easier time of it. But Labor Day is not a lost cause. It has a greater potential to contribute to worker well-being than offering a day of rest to some. It’s encouraging that most private employers who can offer it as a day off do so.  But as workers let’s think of using the day for more than just getting together.  Here are a few of my own ideas hard-won from being employed for 95 percent of the time from 1988 to now and knowing, in my roles in retail, education and journalism, many other workers and even a few employers. 

·       Get together outside of working hours with your co-workers. Maybe even on Labor Day itself. Traditionally, employers are a bit nervous about what could happen if their workers talk outside their presence, and it is true this could be the start of exchanging intelligence about worker pay and hours. But the building of friendships can redound to the employers’ good too as workers can develop rapport that leads to them exchanging tips that lead to faster or more efficient production.  Plus, for workers it’s more motivating if you’re going to work among friends. 

·       Build relationships among churches, civic clubs and employers. This becomes another means for communications about the well-being of a company and its workers. Big social chasms between employers and workers make it too easy for employers to make decisions that hurt workers. Employees who view their employers as occupants of offices are less prone to trust and more likely to make uninformed decisions to leave or stay. 

·       Press for regular all-hand-on-deck meetings and keep what is discussed free from the threat of retaliation. It’s another subject, but I would be for a federal law against any form of retaliation against workers for speaking the truth. Granted, that may not be coming soon. But employers should make clear in these meetings, which should include a chance for workers to talk about their concerns about safety, benefits and (unless a union negotiates it) pay they want the best available feedback about ways to improve and make more efficient the work itself and answer the needs and even wants of workers. Cut hours or wages or demotions not attributed to measurable declines in work performance should result in investigation and sanction by the state or federal department of labor. But short of that, fair hearing of workers should be a matter of an employer or managers’ personal honor. 

Learn Labor History.  Take the time to learn how past and recent actions of organized workers has led to your own ability to make a living. Kim Kelly’s book is a superb starting place, her BookTV talk is too, and it is at the Hempstead County Library (as soon as I check it back in). But also study past victories and failures to learn how your own work situation could be improved. There are so many decisions you can make short of beginning a union organization effort to change things for the better where you live. Learn the vocabulary of methods for communicating with your co-workers and 

Based just next door in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, the company may be best known for offering employer clients the guarantee that if a union effort succeeded after LRI’s intervention, LRI would not charge a payment. Then there’s media outlets like Fox News, that have done incalculable damage to the reputation of unions in rural states. Unlike in Europe, the threat of general strikes to change national economic policy, involving all members of a federation like the AFL-CIO or the SOC (the Strategic Organizing Center, which split off from the AFL-CIO in 2005) seems laughable. 

These are mere first steps, and in my view they're needed to make Labor Day more meaningful and contribute to worker-favoring change for us and for our children. And make my burger medium well.