Labor Day Unpacked
Today marks one of, I believe, the least understood holidays on the US calendar. It comes on the front edge of fall. Traditionally marks the official end of Summer. Provides kids a day off of school after only having gone back for a couple of weeks.
We have cookouts. Drink plenty of beer. Party to our heart’s content.
But rarely do we stop to ask ourselves why this is a thing we get to do. So, today I want to take a break from the way I usually write and take some time to unpack the history behind our long weekend.
Wikipedia, in its opening paragraph about Labor Day, defines it as
a federal holiday in the United States celebrated on the first Monday in September in any given year (i.e. a single day from September 1 through September 7) to honor and recognize the American labor movement…
Labor Day, despite all the American flags and patriotic fervor, has nothing to do with the military. And it has precious little to do with patriotism. Rather, Labor day was established to celebrate the working man.
It began with unions
Labor unions have existed since extremely early in the American story. A couple of the earliest examples being a fisherman’s strike off the coast of Maine in 1636, and a few guys in New York who went on strike in 1677. Most unionization in the colonial era were small groups such as this due to the nature of all work. That began to change post-revolution, as industrialization took hold as the dominant means of work.
Master workmen, people who had learned a trade from a master, were beginning to be outnumbered by journeymen workers, who had no independent means of production. As industrialization expanded, it pitted these workers against each other as they fought for what jobs there were.
This led to workers coming together to collectively bargain for wages and benefits. Which in turn led to criminal cases, with courts asking the question of whether or not workers could come together to bargain for benefits in this way. It was being looked at as a form of criminal conspiracy. For the longest time, in many states, collective bargaining was considered illegal.
In other cases, the line of argument was such that the motive for the gathering was considered rather than the fact that the people had come together to do something. These cases held sway overall, and eventually, unionization was allowed to proceed.
Labor Day established
Eventually, after much work and determination, unions, and the working people in general, became a force to be reckoned with. With large-scale strikes and bargains won, it became clear that workers deserved to be recognized for the work that they had done.
Different union supporters chose different dates to celebrate this. In the 1880s, a holiday in September was proposed. in 1894, the first Monday of September was established as a federal holiday. Although, at that time, it was only a holiday for federal workers. This lead to further strikes, with unions striking to demand that all workers get the day off as a holiday. This resulted in every single state acknowledging Labor Day as a holiday for every kind of worker.
The changing face of work
Unions changed the face of work in unimaginable ways. A living wage. Shorter workweeks. Paid time off. These things would still be pipe dreams to this day if not for the hard work of labor unions. Even lines of work that are not traditionally unionized have followed through on some of these things to attract and keep workers.
But work has continued to change.
Over the years, we have seen a shift in what work drives our economy. At one time, it was manufacturing that kept us going. But, as the pandemic shutdowns of 2020 revealed, this is no longer the case.
Factories, banks, corporate offices, etc all stopped functioning temporarily and it was the service industry that prevented a full economic collapse. Servers, bartenders, fast food workers, grocery store cashiers, Lyft drivers all worked, literally putting their lives on the line in the face of a pandemic illness, often without adequate protection, to make sure we all had what we needed.
Some have said that we have gradually shifted from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. Manufacturing is still vitally important, though. So, it is unfair to imply that the service industry has overtaken manufacturing in importance.
I would say that the service industry has grown in importance by leaps and bounds in the face of automation and technology to become an equal driver of the American economy alongside manufacturing. Service workers do not enjoy the same protections and benefits as factory workers, though.
The new fight over raising the minumum wage stems from this undeniable fact. Tens of thousands of American workers kept from starving those of us who had begun working from home or were forced to stay home temporarily. They did it for, in some cases, pennies on the dollar in comparison to what some make.
These are the men and women Labor Day is designed to commemorate. Factory workers, tradesmen, servers, cashiers, butchers, rideshare providers. So today, as you grill out, drink beers, party, celebrate the “official end of summer”, take a moment to remember the people who made this day possible.
Happy Labor Day.