Labor Day: A Reason For Celebration

Today is Labor Day in the United States. It’s the unofficial final day of the summer holiday season, a time when many families return from their August vacations and prepare their children to begin another school year.

Today is also a federal holiday; thus, all government offices are closed for the day. Most business organizations in the United States grant their employees a paid day off as well.

But when did the federal government first authorize the holiday? At the time, did our political leaders simply intend to give American workers a free day on the first Monday of September to celebrate the end of the summer season?

Blood on the Streets

Many Americans may not be aware that the Labor Day holiday was authorized over a century ago to commemorate and celebrate the union movement. In 1894, United States President Grover Cleveland declared that the newly emerging industrialist society needed to make peace with its work force; he followed the lead of many individual states by authorizing the holiday at the federal level.

Like the Act to establish a federal holiday for Martin Luther King’s Birthday a century later, the decision to authorize Labor Day was precipitated by a series of violent encounters that left blood flowing (quite literally) in the streets. The first such encounter to draw international attention was the May 4, 1886 Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago, where a peaceful rally in support of institutionalizing an eight hour work day degenerated into chaos. A dozen people died in the melee; four protestors were later convicted in a highly controversial trial and then hung for the crime of conspiracy.

Eight years later, violent strikes erupted around the country when the Pullman rail company unilaterally reduced the wages of 4,000 workers; the laborers responded by calling for a national strike. The company then fired the workers but continued to demand that the laborers pay rent for their employer owned homes in their company town. A quarter of a million workers ultimately joined the strike, the United States Army was called in to break up the protests, and thirty workers were killed in the clashes.

President Cleveland and the United States Congress were faced with the challenge of healing the physical and emotional wounds of the nation; they authorized the Labor Day holiday the week after the Pullman strike ended. It was designed to reassure the American work force that the federal government would respect their interests and value their contributions to the growing economy.

Few and Far Between

Although today’s union leaders are still fighting for their members, they are no longer leading violent protests in the streets. Recently, in fact, there have been no significant union victories at all.

This past weekend, for instance, the National Football League confirmed that it is prepared to begin its 2013 season with replacement referees. For the past three months, the League has locked out its unionized referees because of disputes over salary levels, retirement benefit plans, and operational issues.

And earlier this summer, a strike by American factory workers at Caterpillar collapsed with the signing of a labor contract that largely ratified the firm’s demands. That followed successful initiatives by the Governors of New Jersey and Wisconsin to roll back job security, compensation, and other provisions in state contracts with public sector workers.

Street protests in several of these jurisdictions became raucous in tone and disruptive in practice, but there was no physical violence that was comparable to the Haymarket and Pullman events. In fact, the recent American protests were far more peaceful than those recently experienced in the European Union over government austerity measures. So what has happened to the American union movement?

Celebrating Success

Some activists argue that the American labor movement has been adversely affected by the actions of hostile government and business officials. They cite various lobbying initiatives, such as the campaigns launched by the Republican Party and the United States Chamber of Commerce against the Employee Free Choice Act of 2009, to support their assertions.

But others claim that the union model has outlived its usefulness in a nation that now maintains numerous labor protection laws at the federal and local levels. In fact, 2013 will mark the centennial anniversary of President William Howard Taft’s decision to elevate the United States Department of Labor to the Cabinet level of the White House, an action that Taft took on his last official day in office.

The activists who perceive hostility in the government and business sectors tend to support more aggressive union activities, whereas others who perceive obsolescence in the labor sector tend to oppose union actions entirely. Both groups of individuals, though, may be willing to dedicate a few minutes of their Labor Day holiday to celebrate the successes of the union movement in improving the working conditions of American workers for over a century.