Last Monday was Labor Day. It’s not the most popular holiday, I admit; really, it’s just another Monday off work, like President’s Day or Columbus Day. A welcome respite from the hum-drum toil of our daily lives.
In many ways the ambivalence most feel towards Labor Day is the highest form of honor we can bestow. The very fact that our nation’s workers have the privilege to let a day like this pass without fanfare or fireworks is a testament to the ultimate victory of the Labor Movement. But, especially in these scary times, it’s important to remember that victory came at the cost of blood. Worker’s blood.
Let’s begin our story in 1877 just weeks after the formal end of Reconstruction. America wasn’t doing too well. The states which made up the Confederacy were still a motley collection of smoldering rubble, the country had just suffered a fiercely contested presidential election, and the economy labored beneath a four-year long depression.
That last point is the most important because it was the reason Baltimore and Ohio Railroad announced their third 10 percent pay cut for the year—yeah, you read that right. Three pay cuts and it was only July. The workers greeted the announcement with immediate strikes. In response, West Virginia called the federal government for help, putting down the riots and killing over a hundred people.
Unfortunately, the two weeks spat of violence set the trend, and between 1877 and 1900 state governors mobilized the National Guard to resolve approximately 160 different labor disputes. America’s labor movement is one of the bloodiest in human history, a strange paradox for a country that claims liberty as its highest virtue.
The situation only began to change with the birth of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). They served as a rallying point for the Labor Movement and a moderating influence. AFL advocated for a policy of collective bargaining, took great pains to distance themselves from the movement’s more extreme members and were difficult to replace as their numbers consisted solely of skilled craftsmen.
To be clear, the shift to collective bargaining wasn’t because AFL was inherently peaceful, but rather because corporate industrialists could call upon the military might of government. At the time business owners funded local militia and armories, solely for the purpose of keeping their workers in line. They saw it as cheaper than offering benefits.
“(Both sides) are close to equal (…) once the ability of workers to disrupt and organize has been demonstrated,” William Domhoff, Professor of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz, said. “But it’s very difficult to sustain most unions if governments use their legal and coercive powers.”
Over the next half century small agreements between unions and corporate interests paved the way for the Labor Movement’s win in 1935 with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which secured the right to collective bargaining. In 1938 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act which led to the 40-hour work week and established the federal minimum wage.
But these days not all is quiet on the Worker’s Front. According to the California Bureau of Labor our state has seen a modest dip in its union membership, dropping from 17.2 percent in 2009 to 15.2 percent in 2019. This is important as a union worker makes on average 22 percent more than their non-union counterpart and it reflects a disturbing trend nation-wide. Back in 1954 almost a third of American workers belonged to a union. In 2019 it was 6.7 percent.
Since the mid 1970s America’s middle-class wages have stagnated, inequality has grown to absurd proportions and we as a country now face the highest unemployment level since the Great Depression.
It might be time to celebrate Labor Day once again.