Labor Day 2019

While most of the countries of the world recognize the contributions of workers with a holiday on May 1, in the U.S. and Canada, we celebrate Labor Day ini the early autumn. It could be argued that Canadians have to work harder for their celebration since their spelling requires an additional letter to make Labour Day. Today is the 125th anniversary of Labor Day as a national holiday, declared by President Grover Cleveland in an attempt to appease a growing and increasingly agitated labor movement in the wake of a crushing transportation strike.

Eight years earlier, in May, huge protests were held across American cities in support of shorter working hours. At the time laborers were working 18 and even 20 hours per day. Tens of thousands of workers protested, mostly peacefully demanding an eight-hour work day. In Chicago police attacked the protestors, beating and shooting them. Six died. The next evening Chicagoans gathered in Haymarket Square to show their outrage at the police. The police once again advanced against the crowd. Suddenly a bomb went off and a police officer was killed. The police opened fire and a dozen more were killed.

Then, in May of 1894, workers at the Pullman train car factory walked of the job to protest a 30% pay cut while the cost of factory-owned dormitories remained at pre-depression costs. The strike eventually led to a national boycott of trains that used Pullman cars. Railroads in the west came to a standstill. More than 125,000 workers quit their jobs rather than break the boycott.

President Cleveland had to act quickly to appease increasingly agitated workers, but he didn’t want to make the national holiday aa commemoration of the May events such as the Haymarket incident. Therefore he reached back to earlier state observances and signed into law that Labor Day would be celebrated on the first Monday in September.

The traditional ways of celebrating the day include parades and picnics, with more than a few political speeches thrown in. In years past, Labor Day marked the official start of the election season, which lasted from early September to early November. Campaigning, however, is no longer restricted to that short block of time and for many politicians, campaigning is a year-round event.

Despite pressures that have resulted in decreasing membership in labor unions, the union movement in the United States is responsible for many benefits that Americans take for granted. Weekends off from work, much breaks, paid vacations, overtime pay for overtime work, Social Security - all of these things are the direct result of workers organizing themselves to negotiate with and stand up to the power of wealthy business owners. The struggle has never been equal, with the bulk of financial resources being on the side of business owners.

The current labor market in the US is a clear illustration of the pressures that fall on the shoulders of working people. If the market followed general capitalistic rules, wages should be rising the US. With unemployment as low a it has been in nearly two decades and the number of jobs growing the resulting shortage of labor should exert upward pressure on wages. It is a simple matter of supply and demand. As the demand goes up and the supply goes down, the price should rise. Wages in the US, however have defied the expectations of economists. Despite the strong market, today’s real average wage has the same purchasing power it had 40 years ago. The modest gains in wages have been centered on those who were already in the highest paid tier of workers.

The result is widening income inequality in the United States. Those in the top 10% receive nearly all of the benefits of a strong economy, while those in the bottom 10% continue to lag behind.

Some historians cite the contrast between expansive mansion of George Pullman and the spartan dormitories where workers were forced to live, while paying uncontrolled rents to the Pullman company as a factor in the strike of 1894. The distribution of wealth and the inequality of compensation for corporate CEOs in the face of stagnant wages and rising expenses for workers has resulted in even more radical inequalities in our time. It is a simple fact that a full time job at minimum wage produces insufficient income to pay for rent and groceries in our country. While 40 hours a week remains the standard, lower paid workers are combining multiple part-time jobs, without benefits, to raise their work week to sixty or more hours. The lack of benefits, especially in the face of rapidly rising health care costs results in additional financial stress.

It is clear that a national celebration is in order. American workers have contributed to so many benefits that all of us enjoy. And workers deserve a holiday. The truth, however, is that many of the workers in the lowest-paid jobs will not be taking the day off. Retail stores will continue to operate regular hours despite the holiday. Convenience stores will still need their minimum wage employees to work. Bankers and government employees, however, will enjoy the holiday and fire up their barbecues, knowing that if they have any last-minute grocery needs, the store will be open and fully staffed. The system is far from fair.

One of the things about my job is that Monday holidays don’t have much of an impact on the number of hours I work each week. I generally take Monday as my day off - or at least as a day to catch up with household chores and spend a bit less time at the office. A Monday holiday usually means simply keeping to my usual routine. I rarely take an extra day off just because a holiday has been declared. I realize, however, that Labor Day wasn’t declared for the benefits of preachers and other professionals who are compensated for our work based on annual salaries, not on hourly work.

Today, I salute the workers who are out there simply trying to survive, worrying about the cost of simply living.I benefit greatly from their labor. I don’t know if I will go to any stores today, but if I do, I’ll make it a point to thank those who are working for giving up their holiday for the convenience of the rest of us.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!