It’s Labor Day yet again, and while many of us will spend it grilling, visiting family, or meeting up with friends, many of us aren’t familiar with the hard and arduous road it took to achieve this day of respite for workers. And, even fewer of us are aware of how many workers today are left out of this holiday, pressured to come into work on a day that was meant to be theirs to own.
To understand where Labor Day in the U.S. came from, it requires some basic knowledge of the relationship between workers, capitalists, and the government. Whereas today you might think you and your manager are on friendly terms, back in the 19th century there was no such illusion. Management, owners, and the government were on one side, and the workers were on another. They understood the bald truth of economic relations under capitalism: management squeezes as much labor as they can from the worker, and in return pays them as little as possible in the form of a wage. This enlarges the company’s profit margins while often keeping the worker dangling precariously, barely able to get by. Workers, as any self respecting humans would, demand a fairer share of payment in return for their labor. And therein lies the conflict.
In the late 19th century this conflict spread widely across different companies throughout the United States, growing increasingly broader and more violent. Just to name a few of the big ones, in 1881, 3,000 Black Atlanta laundresses formed the Washing Society union and launched a strike to demand better wages and dignified working conditions a mere sixteen years after the Civil War. In 1882, 10,000 predominantly immigrant workers in New York City marched to Union Square demanding improved workers’ rights and conditions. In 1894, Pullman Railway workers went on strike in Chicago, leading to a huge national boycott and several violent demonstrations and resulting in the deaths of dozens of workers.
The most well known of them all started off on May 4th 1886 as labor organizers called for a demonstration protesting the killing of strikers at a McCormick Works factory. What happened next was a spark that would go down in history books. What we know is that some 2,000 workers gathered in support of the strike. What we don’t know is who threw the bomb. As police waded in to try to disperse the crowd, an explosion went off, killing seven cops. This led to a wave of repression against communists, socialists, and anarchists and a kangaroo court that sentenced seven labor radicals to death for their supposed roles in the demonstration.
Seeing the rise in labor unrest and growing resentment of the government’s violent repression of labor, Congress got scared into offering a crumb. A holiday, just for you. In 1894, President Cleveland signed Labor Day into law as a national holiday.
Now workers get one day a year to rest and celebrate the hard work they performed. At least in theory. As we can plainly see, not all workers are entitled to this right, and it feels like year after year fewer workers are granted the day off be they restaurant workers, hotel workers, retail workers, delivery workers, or nurses, just to name a few. In fact, if your job isn’t a federal, state, or municipal position, you’re liable to be called into work on the holiday that is supposed to grant you one day of federally-mandated rest.
The holiday aside, while the broader labor movement can celebrate a few recent wins, we must still acknowledge our slide downward over the last forty years. For example, it’s good that the percentage of workers in unions has risen between 2016 and 2020, now sitting at 10.8%. However, there’s also no denying that compared to 1983’s rate of 20.1%, we’ve fallen a long way, and have a hard climb ahead of us.
Here in Maine we originally saw a couple positive steps under Gov. Mills’ administration, with teachers’ minimum salaries increased; workers in businesses with more than ten employees guaranteed the right to accrue forty hours of paid leave; as well as wage support for Maine’s care workers. But, unfortunately, the bad has outweighed the good in more recent months. For instance, in July, Gov. Mills vetoed a bill to improve public sector labor relations, and an act that would have allowed workers to seek relief in court when their employment rights are violated. It is becoming clearer over time that Mills, who originally painted herself as a friend of labor, is a fair-weather friend at best.
So, if you’re one of the lucky workers who still gets Labor Day off this year, perhaps take a minute between your hotdogs and cornhole games to seriously consider the overall state of our class. Share what you know about the struggles our ancestors went through to achieve a modicum of respect and material comfort with friends and family, and explain how those comforts and that respect have been slowly chipped away these last forty years. If we really want to honor our grandparents and great-grandparents who fought so hard as laborers, we would do our best to support the small but renewed labor movement here in Maine and nationally. It can be as small as pressuring your local and federal representatives to support the PRO Act or joining a local organization that supports workers’ rights, or it can be as big as joining or forming a bonafide union and getting on those front lines from the inside. We are in the nascent stages of reclaiming our respect as laborers, this Labor Day we invite you to join us.