Labor Day ain’t what it used to be.
The whole idea is to highlight the labor movement, its sacrifices and achievements, and how much workers in many fields have contributed to the American Dream.
Today, those concepts are lucky to get a mention, as people focus more on the start of the new academic year, barbecues and the imminent end of summer. Labor Day has become a festival of consumerism in the United States, one of the biggest sales days of the year.
I get that few people know the origins of Labor Day. The holiday has lost its meaning, which is to honor workers and pay homage to those who suffered greatly — even died — because of unsafe conditions, low wages and long hours.
There’s strength in numbers. The Industrial Revolution led to abuse of workers, so labor unions were formed to bargain with management for higher wages, fewer hours, more benefits, improved working conditions and to provide due process to terminations. Workers are still fighting for those things.
President Grover Cleveland advocated for the creation of Labor Day, and Congress made it a national holiday on June 28, 1894. That was on the heels of violent strikes involving the Pullman Railway Car company and the infamous Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886.
During the late 1800s, “The average American worked 12- to 14-hour days and many seven days a week in order to eke out a basic living. Children as young as 5 and 6 often were forced to work in mills, factories and mines,” history.com says. Virtually no employers provided sick days, vacation days or health benefits.
In 1913 alone, 23,000 U.S. industrial workers died in unsafe workplaces. Much later, workers at nuclear plants were exposed to huge does of radioactive materials. Did anything change?
In our state, the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. (CF&I) attacked 1,200 striking miners and their families — who were living in a tent colony and protesting difficult working conditions — on April 20, 1914, in the small southeastern town of Ludlow. About 21 people were killed, including miners’ wives and children. The site today is a National Historic Landmark.
One week later right here in Boulder County in early April 1910 the Hecla Mine strike began when an estimated 3,000 miners walked off the job. It lasted four years and eight months, becoming the longest strike in Colorado history. It resulted in the deaths of seven strikers, injured hundreds more and was referred to as the Hecla “Long Strike.”
Unions reached their zenith during the 1950s and ’60s, backed by the memberships of millions of middle-class workers who carried a union card. One-third of all U.S. workers belonged to unions then.
Contrary to what you may believe, many employers still don’t provide health insurance, sick leave or paid vacation to their employees.
Americans still work longer hours than most industrialized countries. The World Economic Forum reports U.S. workers, on average, toil 1,783 hours a year. That compares to 1,363 for German workers and 1,470 for French employees.
Labor Day is intended to celebrate the contributions of all workers to the U.S economy. The labor movement has helped give Americans the highest standard of living and the greatest production of goods and services in the world.
In the first major piece of pro-labor legislation, Congress established the U.S. Department of Labor in 1913 to protect the rights and welfare of all American workers, not just those in organized labor.
In 1935, the National Labor Relations Board was created to define the rights of unions and management. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established minimum wages and overtime pay, and abolished child labor.
And in 1970, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act) was created to oversee worker safety.
We must reverse the damage caused by the last few years of the Washington’s changing federal labor policies:
They tried to reduce employment protection of workers’ health and safety.
They weakened protections for farmworkers, particularly for immigrants.
They rolled back many protections for workers exposed to certain hazardous materials.
Regarding wages, they tried to make it legal to take workers’ hard-earned tips, tried to take money out of workers’ pockets by weakening the overtime rules, rolled back the rule that made it easier for workers to save for retirement saving, rolled back another rule that ensured that unemployed workers could access their earned benefits, tried to undermine pay equity and proposed the rollback of the SEC rule that requires the disclosure of CEO-to-employee pay ratios (for example, the CEO pay ratio in 2016 was an obscene 347-to-1).
Many U.S. corporations continue to ship jobs overseas, mainly to avoid paying taxes, to pay low wages and to take advantage of loose labor laws.
The last administration also undermined the right of workers to organize and join unions.
Labor Day started as a way to honor unionized workers. Today, it should be expanded to celebrate all workers and as a way to focus on needed employment reforms.
Meanwhile, Nabisco workers in Aurora as well as five other cities in Illinois, Georgia, Oregon and Virginia are on strike today, protesting a new company rule that would, among other things, change eight-hour shifts to 12 hours without overtime pay, and moving jobs overseas.
As you relax on Labor Day, take a moment to thank the hardworking men and women for their efforts to create the much-improved working conditions we now enjoy.
Jim Martin moved to Boulder 60 years ago on Sept. 3, 1961, still the first day of any measurable Denver metro snowfall. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.