Reflections on the history behind Labor Day – Twin Cities
Like many of America’s national holidays, Labor Day holds two meanings simultaneously. On the one hand, we sponsor parades to commemorate the struggle for workplace rights.
And on the other hand? It’s a great day for hot deals on mattresses or other big-ticket items.
At this point, I should probably segue into how ironic that is. How could we ignore the true meaning of the day for something so superficial?
In truth, I think it’s the perfect measure of the holiday’s success. Taking the day for granted means that it has become embedded in our culture — an enormous victory for its founders.
As one of our earliest national holidays, Labor Day was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894. Enacting the law wasn’t benevolence, but an effort to quell unrest over the growing violence between workers, management and law enforcement. Earlier that year, for example, two striking workers in the Pullman Railcar Strike were killed by the U.S. Army and U.S. Marshals Service.
Violence on picket lines had been happening with alarming frequency. Just eight years earlier, the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago saw a peaceful protest end with at least eight dead and dozens wounded. Police officers were among those killed; six months later, four activists were sentenced to hang, raising the toll even further.
The issue they were striking for? An eight-hour work day.
To demonstrate how slowly change was coming, the movement for an eight-hour day in America was started in 1866 or earlier, and finally ended in 1938, 72 years later. That’s when President Franklin Roosevelt made it the legal standard as part of the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act.
To our national credit, workplace conditions have been improving at a faster pace in the years since. The same can’t be said of union membership, which has declined precipitously both in numbers and as a percentage of the workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies 10.1 percent of United States workers as union-affiliated in 2022 — a figure that decreased by half from the 1983 number of 20.1 percent.
That would be more alarming if not for the worker empowerment that has been growing even without unions. In the past half-decade alone, we’ve seen increases in minimum wage, in family medical leave, in paid sick time and numerous other initiatives. While many of these gains have taken place on a state or city (rather than federal) level, the trend line can’t be ignored.
Whether unions will regain their past primacy in membership is difficult to predict, although they are clearly having a moment. Combining the power of social media with a tight labor market, union members in fields as diverse as entertainment and package delivery have been flexing their muscles all summer long.
Regardless of the long-term fortunes of a particular union or action, the concept of worker’s rights has permeated our culture, becoming almost as embedded as Labor Day itself.
As proof, I now commonly hear candidate proposals for salary or work conditions that would have seemed impossible just a few years earlier. These successes are an exciting fulfillment of earlier efforts to raise workers to new levels.
But sometimes I see a darker side as well, when a candidate seems to want so much more than an employer could support. That’s when I’ve found myself exasperated by those who confuse rights with privileges and privileges with entitlement.
The right to be treated fairly, to work a reasonable day in humane and reasonable conditions, for reasonable pay, without harassment or threat — this is non-negotiable.
But there is no right, so to speak, to work remotely or to be paid more than the prevailing rate. When these things do happen, they are privileges or likely fair exchange for value brought by the worker.
And those privileges, once extended, don’t include working fewer than the agreed hours, taking sick days to run errands, or using mouse jigglers to simulate working as some employees describe doing on social media. That abuse of one’s position comes from a sense of entitlement and demeans the centuries-long struggle to improve work conditions.
This can be a hard balance to strike, but it’s critical not to confuse self-interest for forward progress. Although we haven’t gotten to where we should be in terms of ensuring the rights of all workers, we won’t arrive at the destination any faster by ignoring the very premise of the working relationship.
Labor Day is a good time to reflect on our rights, privileges and responsibilities as American workers. And yes, it’s also a good time to get a hot deal on a new mattress — that’s one of the rights our union members won for us as well.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at [email protected].