Sunday, September 03, 2017

Labor Day: a Reminder of How Far We've Come and How Far We Still Have to Go

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a celebration of the American worker. As you might expect, this day of tribute was created by the labor movement. Since labor has always had less capital than management, its strength is always in its numbers.

The day is an acknowledgement of the American workers who built this nation, and continue to do so, while advancing it economically and socially.

Though municipal ordinances were passed in 1885 and 1886, the first state to officially recognize Labor Day by law was Oregon, on February 21, 1887. Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York all followed suit later that year, and by 1894 a total of 28 states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers.

Finally, on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the U.S.

Labor unions, such as the American Federation of Labor, the Brotherhood of Carpenters, the American Railway Union and the International Association of Machinists were instrumental in fighting for betters working standards, as well as promoting a holiday to celebrate the working man (and later, working women).

Fighting for better labor standards, such as the eight-hour work day, the five-day work week and the minimum wage, etcetera, have raised the living standards of all workers and led to higher economic and political principles for all.

While Labor Day also symbolizes the unofficial end of summer and is celebrated with beach parties, backyard barbecues and retail-sales events, no American worker should ever lose sight of the true meaning of Labor Day, or the sacrifices that the labor movement made over the past century to improve work and living standards.

In the late 1800s, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks to simply get by. Children as young as five or six worked in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. Conditions for all workers were poor and often terribly unsafe. Many employees lacked access to clean air, toilet/wash facilities and work breaks.

There were examples of workers living in company-owned buildings, in company-owned towns, where the workers’ only option was to spend their hard-earned money in company-owned stores.

These circumstances drove workers to organize and strike for better conditions, hours and pay. At times, these strikes turned violent and dozens of workers died in protest. Chicago was the scene of the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886 and the bloody Pullman strike in 1894, the latter of which resulted in federal troops being deployed to crush the rioting workers.

These violent, brutal events led President Grover Cleveland to sign the Labor Day holiday into law just days later.

The incidents also led to common labor statutes that are now accepted as standard, such as child labor laws, mandatory breaks, paid overtime, vacation time and even paid holidays.

The unfair, unsafe, often inhumane labor practices of the 19th Century ultimately resulted in United States labor law, whose basic aim is to remedy the "inequality of bargaining power" between employees and employers.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 requires a federal minimum wage and discourages unhealthy working weeks over 40 hours through time-and-a-half overtime pay. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires that employees have a safe system of work.

The Clayton Act of 1914 guarantees all people the right to organize and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave the right for most employees to organize over unfair labor practices without punishment.

None of these things would have resulted if not for the struggles and organization of American workers. We owe better pay, better hours, paid overtime and safe workplaces to the workers who fought for these things.

There is still a long way to go in order for most workers to be fairly compensated for their labors.

The federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 an hour since 2009. Adjusted for inflation, it peaked in 1968 at $8.68 (in 2016 dollars), according to the Pew Research Center.

Contrary to popular belief, minimum wage workers are not all, or even mostly, teens. Less than half (45 percent) of the 2.6 million hourly workers who were at or below the federal minimum in 2015 were ages 16 to 24.

If a minimum wage worker puts in 40 hours per week and works 52 weeks a year (no vacation time), his/her annual earnings would be $15,080. The federal poverty guideline in 2017 for a family of two (one working parent, with one child) is $16,240. In other words, that minimum wage worker is below the federal poverty line.

This isn’t theoretical; it's real life for millions of Americans. According to U.S. Census Bureau, there were 23 million single-parent families in 2016 and the vast majority were headed by single mothers. Today, 1 in 4 children under the age of 18 are being raised without a father and almost half (40 percent) live below the poverty line.

It’s not just minimum wage workers who are a struggling. A reasoned argument can be made that most American workers are underpaid, which is a major factor in our troubling income inequality problem.

Sadly, America ranks among the worst in the world in this category. Of the 35 developed countries in the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), only three have worse income inequality than the US (Turkey, Mexico and Costa Rica).

Today the top 1 percent take home more than 20 percent of all U.S. income. Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent earn barely 12 percent of income.

According to the Social Security Administration, in 2015:

- 50 percent of wage earners made less than $30,000
- 61.5 percent of wage earners made less than $40,000
- 70.5 percent of wage earners made less than $50,000

Unionized workers are rarely minimum wage workers. Many are skilled laborers who rightfully earn more. The problem is that there are relatively few union workers left in America today.

The share of American workers who actually belong to a labor union has been falling for decades and is at its lowest level since the Great Depression, according to the Pew Research Center.

As of 2013, only 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to unions, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At their peak in 1954, 34.8 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers belonged to unions, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In many ways, American workers have come a long way over the past century, but they clearly have much further to go.

However, the labor movement's past achievements are worth remembering and celebrating on this, and every, Labor Day.


  1. It's a disgrace. Yes, things are better in many ways but the real assault on the American worker is underway. It will surely break the camel's back. Jobs are disappearing. Robotics will dramatically eliminate the need to hire humans. How we handle that as a nation will determine if we survive. The stakes couldn't be higher.

  2. And let's not forget, a true Libertarian would be opposed to most labor laws insisting that the marketplace should be left to its own devices. Libertarians are a growing party in America.

    1. I agree with Libertarianism as it applies to personal freedoms. However, I don't think that corporations, or the wealthiest 1 percent, should be able to take advantage or mistreat the masses. Some regulation is reasonable and sensible.