Today is Labor Day, a federally recognized holiday that most Americans likely think of as a well-deserved day off. Labor Day was first celebrated in the late 1880’s as labor activists from the American Federation of Labor (which later formed part of the basis for the AFL-CIO) and other unions rallied around a day to celebrate organized labor and to take a day off. In 1887 Oregon started a formal “Labor Day” and by 1897 President Glover Cleveland made it a federal holiday, reacting to pressure from unions following the contentious Pullman Strike.
On this day that is set aside to celebrate the American laborer, Americans should recall the many benefits that organized labor have provided our country:
1. Unions Gave Us The Weekend: Even the ultra-conservative Mises Institute notes that the relatively labor-free 1870, the average workweek for most Americans was 61 hours — almost double what most Americans work now. Yet in the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century, labor unions engaged in massive strikes in order to demand shorter workweeks so that Americans could be home with their loved ones instead of constantly toiling for their employers with no leisure time. By 1937, these labor actions created enough political momentum to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, which helped create a federal framework for a shorter workweek that included room for leisure time.
2. Unions Helped End Child Labor: “Union organizing and child labor reform were often intertwined” in U.S. history, with organization’s like the “National Consumers’ League” and the National Child Labor Committee” working together in the early 20th century to ban child labor. The very first American Federation of Labor (AFL) national convention passed “a resolution calling on states to ban children under 14 from all gainful employment” in 1881, and soon after states across the country adopted similar recommendations, leading up to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act which regulated child labor on the federal level for the first time.
3. Unions Won Widespread Employer-Based Health Coverage: “The rise of unions in the 1930’s and 1940’s led to the first great expansion of health care” for all Americans, as labor unions banded workers together to negotiate for health coverage plans from employers. In 1942, “the US set up a National War Labor Board. It had the power to set a cap on all wage increases. But it let employers circumvent the cap by offering “fringe benefits” – notably, health insurance.” By 1950, “half of all companies with fewer than 250 workers and two-thirds of all companies with more than 250 workers offered health insurance of one kind or another.”
4. Unions Spearheaded The Fight For The Family And Medical Leave Act: Labor unions like the AFL-CIO federation led the fight for this 1993 law, which “requires state agencies and private employers with more than 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave annually for workers to care for a newborn, newly adopted child, seriously ill family member or for the worker’s own illness.”
And yet, despite the many benefits unions have provided the United States, right-wing politicians and business interests have for years sought to undermine the ability of Americans to organize to demand better pay, benefits, and conditions. From the anti-worker Taft-Hartley Act to the recent GOP-led efforts to kill public worker collective bargaining rights, these assaults have successfully decreased union membership over time. In the prosperous 1950’s, nearly one in three Americans was in a union. Today, it is closer to one in ten.
This has had a deterimental effect on the American middle class. As the following chart from CAP’s David Madland and Karla Waters demonstrates, as union membership fell from the 1970’s to the present, the middle class’s share of national income fell as well:
But Americans do not have to allow the assault on unions to succeed and the middle class to decline. As Wisconsin taught the nation, when people come together and organize, they can help beat back the attack on Main Street America. As you enjoy Labor Day today, think about what you can do to help the same labor unions that brought you the weekend, health care coverage, strong wages, and a robust middle class. One great place to start is to help campaigns like We Are Ohio, which is working to repeal the anti-labor law pass by Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) in Ohio.