david kerr H&S

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Labor Day is one of those holidays most of us don’t think much about.  It used to precede the first day of school, but now, almost all of the school systems in our region start well before Labor Day.  The same can be said for political campaigns. Most didn’t get underway in earnest until Labor Day. Now, they start months if not years in advance.

Besides, there is a lot more to Labor Day than its being some kind of arbitrary demarcation point.  And no, it wasn’t just invented to give you one last shot at three-day vacation at the beach or a chance to put more on your credit card at a Labor Day sale.  It was, what the name implies, all about labor.

It began, like a lot of holidays do in the U.S., in something of a piecemeal fashion.  Various organizations of workers, not necessarily unions in the modern sense, held parades and had picnics to celebrate their achievements and the value of American workers.  It was mostly skilled labor at first such as machinists, carpenters and brick masons. By the late 1880s, 23 states had a Labor Day holiday. In 1894, Congress passed and the president signed the law that officially created Labor Day.  It had cheerful bi-partisan support.   

While innocuous enough, establishing a holiday isn’t that hard, it was nonetheless the first federal actions that recognized American labor.  In those days, and well up until the New Deal and the Wagner Act, American workers didn’t have that many rights. The right of labor to organize and to strike wouldn’t be officially sanctioned by the federal government until the 1930s. Until then, organizing a union was a difficult business.  Strikes were often considered illegal and often forcefully opposed by state and local law enforcement. But, at least in 1894, Labor got its own day. That was also the year my Grandad was born. He was printer and was once a steward with the International Typographical Union. The things his union wanted, 80 years ago, are benefits many of us take for granted such as a lunch break, a five-day week and paid vacation.  

That was a long time ago.  The labor movement began its big rise in the 1930’s with President Roosevelt’s New Deal and most importantly the Wagner Act.  This made it easier for unions to organize and to strike. As a result, pay and working conditions got better and, in a rare taste of industrial democracy, some corporate boards even invited union representatives to join their ranks.  But as early as the 1960s, the labor movement had started to erode. The economy was changing and neither side, labor nor management, seemed able to adapt fast enough. In the late 1940s 40% of American workers belonged to unions. Today only 11% do, and most workers have never even been approached about joining one.

A lot of middle class Americans, and certainly those in even higher income brackets, have a knee jerk reaction against organized labor.   They think of abuses such as featherbedding (demanding more workers on a job than needed), infiltration by organized crime and the perception that labor is resistant to technology.  There is justification for each of these claims.  

But, there is another side to the story.  One person has no leverage when dealing with a big company.  He or she can rarely negotiate pay or benefits and has to live with the reality that they can be fired without justification.  It’s a one-sided relationship. Meanwhile, a union, by representing all of the workers in a company or in a particular part of company, has leverage and can stand up for individual workers.  

Today, large corporations and their management have a surprisingly free hand.  Workers on the other hand are often overmatched. Our service economy has very little union presence and the results are easy to see.  The growth in worker wages after the Great Recession is still not keeping up with the increase in prices. In other words, American workers are losing ground.  

At the same time, the disparity between the top 1% and the bottom 90% in terms of income is at a record level.  Alas, there is no one left able to argue with management for higher pay levels. Workers just have to get by as best they can.  That’s hardly something that the original founders of Labor Day, or those who pioneered the labor movement of the 20th century, would have been happy to hear.  


David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at staffordnews@insidenova.com

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