Today is Labor Day, a day on which millions of Americans will enjoy a luxury that, sadly, is rarely afforded to them: a day off from work.
Unlike some holidays, there’s little ambiguity about what Labor Day represents. It’s a day that first gained momentum, and eventually legal status, in the late 1800s. Organized labor had been fighting bloody battles with factory owners and police to help end the injustices of the Gilded Age, and Labor Day was set aside to recognize the contributions of those workers to America’s success.
Now, workers have their holiday, but also face the very real prospect of a return to that Gilded Age. Wages are stagnating, hours are increasing, benefits and pensions are disappearing, and union-busting is back in full force. And all of this is happening at a time when GDP is expanding and the wealthiest Americans are the richest they’ve ever been.
A holiday is nice, but it doesn’t signify the end of labor’s struggle. In 2015 America, it’s possible for a mother to be fired from her low-paying job for spending too much time with her newborn while a top-level executive can receive a bonus for running a company into the ground.
Politicians talk often of jobs and the middle class, but regularly do all they can to undermine workers. Wisconsin Governor and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker became a household name in 2011 for his confrontations with public sector unions representing teachers, policemen and firefighters, among others. Recently, Walker signed a budget that eliminates a provision guaranteeing workers 24 consecutive hours of rest for every seven-day stretch of work they complete. Far from being tainted by his anti-worker crusade, Walker boasted at the first GOP presidential debate, “I took on the big government union bosses, and we won.”
Americans are often badly misaligned politically with their own self-interest. Our own lives and livelihoods have, incredibly, been supplanted by an overriding concern for the well-being of the wealthy, on the widely debunked supposition that the better they’re doing, the better we’ll all do. At the time Labor Day was instated, this wasn’t the case. During the most robust periods of labor unrest, a lively class-consciousness occupied the American worker.
Union membership peaked in the 1950s at around 36 percent and has since plummeted to 11.1 percent. In the private sector, the number is only 6.6 percent. Corporations like Wal-Mart campaign aggressively against employees unionizing, despite allowing them to do so in other countries. Uber drivers can’t unionize, let alone receive benefits, because despite Uber setting their rates and having the power to “deactivate” them, drivers technically aren’t employees.
Wealthy elites remain ever-vigilant in efforts to undermine the pay, benefits, and organizing potential of everyday workers, yet speaking in terms that merely suggest class warfare can elicit great hostility. Depending on just how far right-wing a person’s political affiliations are, any or all of the following words which once were so important to labor can be offensive: collective, union, cooperation, organization, community, movement, solidarity, strike, fairness, or equality.
These opponents of unionization and labor generally insist that workers just want to get more for doing less. In reality, the exact opposite is true: they are doing far more and receiving far less for it. Americans today work longer hours both in comparison to their ancestors and their contemporaries in other Western countries. For all this extra time in the office and productivity, American workers’ wages have been stagnant or fallen for 35 years.
In terms of benefits Americans are even further behind: retirement, vacation time, healthcare, and family leave are all far more extensive in European countries. One in four Americans receive no paid time off at all. Those Americans who do get paid time off simply aren’t taking it at the rates they used to, partly for fear of job insecurity. When they do take vacation, many of them spend at least some of their vacation checking in with work. And on sick leave, America is joined only by Oman and Papua New Guinea on the distinguished list of nations that don’t mandate it.
Yet Labor Day stands as a reminder of what can be achieved when workers’ allegiance is with one another, not a political class that denounces collectivism while demanding individual sacrifice for corporate gain. Despite Labor Day looking rather hollow in light of today’s labor concerns, a few important forces like the Fight for $15 movement and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign remain aligned with workers.
On this hard-earned and much-deserved Labor Day break, it’s important to keep in mind all the work that still lies ahead to ensure days like it become more plentiful. And know that on the horizon lie even more labor movement victories for us to celebrate in the future.