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Labor Day ain’t what it used to be. The whole idea behind it is to highlight the labor movement, its sacrifices and achievements, and how much workers in various 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. Nationwide, more than 40% of businesses will still be open on Monday.

Jim Martin for the Camera
Jim Martin for the Camera

I get that few people know the origins of Labor Day. The holiday has lost its meaning, which is to honor all workers and pay homage to those who suffered greatly — many even died — because of unsafe conditions, low wages and long hours.

There’s strength in numbers. The Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s led to the abuse of workers, who formed labor unions 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.

Labor Day (which is tomorrow) is shedding an older image and bringing rapid changes to the workplace as many Americans decide that collective bargaining is the best way to go. They are dissatisfied with pay and benefits, job security and working conditions.

Just examine the headlines and trends.

The labor movement was jolted into action because the pandemic cost over a million American lives. Meanwhile, the growing number of people who chose to work at home quickly emptied out commercial offices.

The COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted vast disparities in benefits and working conditions. That helped fuel a movement to unionize more workers. We’re seeing more attempts to form unions at big corporations such as Starbucks, Amazon, Alphabet, John Deere, Kellogg and even newspaper newsrooms.

Starbucks has had elections in over 300 stores in 35 states, approving unionization at 150 of them.

Stephanie Luce, a professor at the City University New York School of Labor and Urban Studies, said, “The pandemic really just pushed people over the edge in saying ‘I’m done with this. I’m not going to put up with this anymore. I’m not going to risk my life and health.’”

Union petitions were up 57% from the same period a year before, between October 2021 and March 2022.

A Gallup poll recently found that 68% of Americans surveyed were in favor of labor unions — the highest approval rating since 1965.

But inequalities still abound.

The United States has a higher level of income differences and a larger share of low-income residents than almost any other advanced nation, according to the annual employment report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The Pew Research Center, in a 2021 survey, concluded the majority of adults see any decline in union membership to be bad for the country and working people.

The U.S. is considered the most overworked developed nation in the world. Also, the U.S. remains the only industrialized country that has no legally mandated annual leave.

Still, unions do make a positive difference in many sectors of our economy.

Union-worker wages are 28% percent higher than their non-union counterparts.

A surprising 78% of union workers have guaranteed pensions. Only 19% of non-union workers have the same.

More than 84% of union workers are provided health insurance benefits. But only 64% of non-union workers get those.

Union workers are more likely to have better benefits — such as health care, retirement accounts, sick leave and maternity leave — than do non-union workers.

Unions help non-unionized workers get higher wages and better working conditions, including the ability to work remotely.

Most American union workers get paid vacation and paid sick time benefits. Did you know that there is no federal law requiring sick leaves in the U.S.?

Contrary to what you may believe, many non-union employers still don’t provide health insurance, sick leave, retirement, maternity leave or paid vacation to their employees.

Mark Pearce, a Georgetown University law professor, said, “The pandemic was the wakeup call or the catalyst that prompted two perspectives: Is there another way to work and live, and the relationship between employers and their workers. The vulnerable workers, many essential workers, were not only scared, they were pissed.”

The history of the U.S. labor movement is rife with violence, disagreements and other difficulties.

The Industrial Revolution pushed workers to form labor unions.

President Grover Cleveland supported the idea of Labor Day and Congress made it a national holiday on June 28, 1894 — right after the violent strikes involving the Pullman Railway Car Co. and the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886.

Worker safety was not a high priority then. In 1913 alone, 23,000 U.S. industrial workers died in unsafe workers. Children as young as 5 and 6 often were forced to work in mills, factories and mines.

In Colorado, the Ludlow Massacre on Oct. 20, 1914, killed 21 people — including strikers, miners’ wives and children — and injured hundreds more.

One week later, here in Boulder County, the Hecla Mine Strike began. It lasted four years and eight months and is the longest strike in state history. Seven strikers died and hundreds more were injured. The strike took place close to what is now a King Soopers store on East South Boulder Road.

As you relax on Labor Day, take a moment to thank the hard-working men and women from the early 1900s for their efforts to create the much-improved working conditions we now enjoy.

Please remember the many workers who gave so much to improve the American workplace.

Labor Day now is intended to celebrate the contributions of all workers — union and non-union. The labor movement has helped give Americans the highest standard of living and the greatest production of goods and services in the world.

Labor Day is much more than retail sales and barbecues.

Jim Martin can be reached at jimmartinesq@gmail.com

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