Labor Day traditionally signals the end of summer, the beginning of school and the start of the political season. This Labor Day, Nebraskan families will unite in backyards and public parks across the nation to enjoy one another’s company. That is as it should be, but there is something important missing.
Too few of us know the holiday’s history. New York City first celebrated Labor Day in 1882, a time when our nation’s industrial production was overtaking agriculture as the driver of the American economy. By the first federal celebration of Labor Day in 1894, 30 states were already celebrating this holiday. Put in its proper context, Labor Day is a celebration of the many contributions organized labor has made to expanding democracy, humanizing the employer/employee relationship and improving our national standard of living. After all, Labor Day is the nation’s only holiday dedicated to everyday wage earners: the people who built this great nation and who make it run each and every day.
At the first celebration of Labor Day, America was in the Gilded Age with its Robber Barons and its “huddled masses.” The Gilded Age was noted for its massive economic inequity. More than a century before Gordon Gecko, a character in the 1987 movie Wall Street, declared, “Greed is good,” William Henry Vanderbilt, the self-described richest man on earth, stated the obvious: “The public be damned! I run my railroads for my stockholders!”
Industrial might and political power went hand in hand. America’s economic elite had the financial and the political power to dominate the politics of the day. Political contributions were largely unregulated. Mark Hanna, campaign manager for both of President McKinley’s elections, emphasized this reality with this statement: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
The growth of monopolies hurt those at the other end of the economic spectrum: the huddled masses. Family farmers, ordinary wage earners and even Main Street merchants understood that for them the playing field of life was uneven. The economic and political power imbalance they saw every day hurt their ability to provide for their families.
In the Gilded Age profit levels and stockholder value were, in part, based upon keeping labor costs as low as possible. Historically, one strategy for driving down wage levels was to create a “reverse auction” where the available jobs went to those who were the lowest bidders. Employers divided the workforce by pitting men against women, adults against children, native-born against immigrant and union against nonunion employees. As a result, 12-hour days and six-day workweeks were the norm. Wages were low; work was dangerous; there were no sick days, pensions, paid holidays, worker compensation, unemployment insurance or any vestiges of a social safety net. The middle class was miniscule, and the American Dream was just a distant hope.
To improve their lives, workers had to find a way to introduce meaningful democracy into the workplace. Labor unions were formed to do just that. Unions challenge the power imbalance at the heart of at-will employment. Organized labor is the only organization that exists to help wage earners gain an independent voice in the workplace. The employees use their voice to improve their quality of life.
Prior to unionization, the only right wage earners had was to quit their employment if they didn’t believe their employers were treating them with dignity and respect. Through their union, workers gained the opportunity to partner with their employers to improve the workplace by increasing levels of fairness and justice. Labor and management jointly negotiated mutually binding collective bargaining agreements … agreements that increased the quality of work life, while also expanding opportunities, retirement security and job security.
The American labor movement humanized the employment relationship by working from the idea that “an injury to one, is an injury to all.” The workplace rights, safeguards and benefits that today we take for granted were hard-won. The push to establish the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage, health insurance, pensions, Social Security and Medicare was long and hotly contested. Organized labor created a ladder by which wage earners could climb into the middle class. As a result, the well-being of families, communities and the nation as a whole was improved.
For a brief period, following the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, this nation’s wealth was broadly and fairly shared. For every increase in worker productivity, there was a corresponding increase in compensation. This was a peak period for union density in our country. Union contracts became the benchmarks, which improved how nonrepresented employees were treated. As President Kennedy noted, our nation’s economy was growing, and it was raising all boats. By late 1960 legislation had passed that leveled the playing field, and there was hope that the American dream was within reach. In this period of peak union density, as a nation, we all did better because we all did better.
Today, the nation’s economy has recovered from the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. The stock market and profit levels are back at prerecession levels. But it’s mostly a jobless recovery. Employers in the public and private sectors of our economy were able to become leaner and meaner coming out of the 2007 recession. They have found ways to mechanize and to do more with less. Productivity is up, and pay for everyday wage earners is down. The percentage of our nation’s income going to middle-class families is shrinking, and the sense of job insecurity is rising.
In 2013 the Gilded Age may be history, but it seems that the nation is moving “back to the future.” Even before the onset of the Great Recession in 2007, the media was focusing on the economic inequality that was limiting opportunities, increasing job insecurity and creating budget crises at every level of government. Now that the recession is officially over, the rising economic tide is again leaving the huddled masses behind.
So on this Labor Day, it is good to be with family and friends. It’s equally important to take time to remember, reflect and reaffirm our nation’s commitment to workplace rights and to the labor unions that helped raise levels of fairness and justice in the workplace. Unions are good for the economy. President Franklin Roosevelt noted that “It is to the real advantage of every producer, every manufacturer, and every merchant to cooperate in the improvement of working conditions because the best customer of American Industry is the well-paid worker.”