The True Meaning of Labor Day – Are Unions Dead?


    This Monday, millions of Americans across the country (at least, those not in service industry jobs) will host cook-outs, spend time with their families or just enjoy an entire day of loafing on the couch in celebration of what has become an annual holiday for doing nothing – Labor Day. But what is the true meaning of this working person’s day?

    According to the Department of Labor, the first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City, with the second held exactly one year later in accordance with plans adopted by the Central Labor Union for a demonstration and picnic. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in cities throughout the industrial centers of the country celebrated with speeches and parades “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community.

    The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act – six days after the infamous Pullman Strike ended – making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

    The reasons such a holiday was necessary were much more obvious in 1885 than they are now.

    At the turn of the 19th century, the average American toiled for 12 hours a day, seven days a week just to live. This included children – some as young as 5 or 6 – who worked alongside their parents in mills, factories and mines. This led to the formation of labor unions who began organizing strikes to demand better conditions and pay – many of which turned violent, culminating with the Pullman Palace Car Company strike that began on May 11, 1894 – an event that crippled railroad traffic nationwide and led to Congress officially recognizing Labor Day as a national holiday.

    These days, Labor Day is better known as the unofficial end of summer, though many school districts now begin school a couple of weeks earlier. It’s also the beginning of football season – the National Collegiate Athletic Association usually play their first games that weekend and the NFL begins their regular season on the Thursday following. In an era when the words ‘labor’ and ‘union’ have just about become synonymous with ‘socialism’, is the true meaning of Labor Day now consigned to the history books?

    According to labor strategist Rich Yeselson, no.

    “Their (unions’) power has declined enormously, obviously, but unions, especially the largest ten or so, are still significant American institutions,” he said in a 2014 interview with

    Yeselson pointed out that unions still have millions of members, mostly in big cities, in the manufacturing industry or in government jobs.

    “However, union density – which is a quick way to measure union power – has declined,” he said. “Union economic power–the ability to increase wages and benefits across an entire industry–is defined by the percentage of members within a particular economic sector. The classic postwar example is the auto industry. When the UAW (United Auto Workers) had comprehensive contracts with every U.S. based plant, they effectively set a wage rate for the entire auto workforce. Now, of course, “transplant” auto facilities in the US owned by Japanese, Korean, and German companies can and do undercut UAW-won wages at three American owned car companies. This is precisely what high union density is supposed to prevent.”

    Some unions in the U.S. still have density-based power, Rich continued – such as the longshoremen and airline industries – though unions are not nearly as popular in our country as in others.

    “But, in general, the U.S. lacks the kind of industry-wide high density you still find in parts of Europe,” he said. “Essentially, we have seen a great shrinking in the advanced world of what was the core union demographic: manufacturing and mining workers. Production in those sectors is high, but companies need fewer workers to do it—and they’ve transferred much of the work to developing countries like China, where they can get away with much lower wages. But, the United States is a special case…in no other advanced country is the entire political economy as relentlessly opposed to unionization as it is here.”

    That being said, Yeselson asserts that there are opportunities for unions in our country – particularly in low-wage retail work at places like Wal-Mart and in the fast food industry.

    “What’s ironic about the conservative opposition to unions is that unions are inherently conservative institutions, which historically developed parallel with the development of capitalism itself. They are as much a part of capitalism as Henry Ford or Apple,” he said. “And if you have any concerns about the danger of large, concentrated private power and money–from the Koch brothers to the oil companies to the insurance companies—unions, even now in their weakened condition, are likely to be the loudest, most powerful ally you will have. Unions, as the old saying goes, are the ‘folks who brought you the weekend’. And fight for your Social Security. Meaning a bunch of issues that have nothing directly to do with unionized workers. At their best, unions try to make America a better place, not merely for their members, but for millions of others.”

    Keri Hendry Weeg