It's almost Labor Day, which usually means it's time to snag some retail deals, attend a backyard barbecue (socializing, is that still a concept?), lament the dregs of summer, and wear white just to crack one corny joke.
But imagine, for a moment, a time when the holiday wasn't about any of those things. The truth is that it's been almost entirely severed from its origins, even though the causes working people were fighting for over a century ago still haven't come to fruition — not for everyone, anyway.
Labor Day is, in theory, supposed to celebrate all workers. But in 2015, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a quarter of people working in the private sector didn't get a paid day off on Labor Day. Many businesses typically stay open, meaning a large proportion of service, retail, and hospitality industry workers expect to be on the job.
But if Labor Day isn't a paid holiday for every working person, why does it exist? It's not a pretty history.
Labor Day was not a victory
Though workers in many states started throwing Labor Day parades throughout the 1880s, it might never have become a national holiday if not for a historic strike and boycott that started in May 1894, when employees of a railcar manufacturer called Pullman Palace Car Company suffered deep wage cuts. They were joined in a sympathy boycott by the American Railway Union, which had around 150,000 members. This huge coalition disrupted the nation; the USPS couldn't deliver mail in certain parts of the country. Railway transportation was an essential service, and essential workers were demanding better treatment.
In the midst of this unrest, President Grover Cleveland signed a law making Labor Day an official holiday, which some historians say was a move to placate sympathizers who disapproved of his reaction to the strike, and to calm the waters during a period of continued labor discontent.
Then on July 4th, Cleveland sent 10,000 federal troops to Chicago to brutally end the strike. Thirteen workers were killed and 53 seriously injured there, with more than 30 killed throughout the nation that summer. The strike ended in failure for the Pullman workers, who won none of their demands.
This year, Labor Day's history might feel a little too real. The growing awareness of the country's race and labor inequalities is reaching a fever pitch, evidenced by the hundreds of cross-industry strikes organized by essential workers over the last months, alongside a historic summer of racial justice protests that the police have attempted to suppress violently.
Labor laws still exclude women and people of color
Labor organizations today use Labor Day to continue advancing some of the workers' rights that were being fought for when it first became a holiday. "We see it as a day to honor the essential workers in this nation who've never been valued," says Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The SEIU is one of the largest labor unions in the country, covering almost two million members in the U.S. and Canada who work in health care, property services (like janitors), and public services (like local government workers).
Henry reminds us that labor laws in this country were originally written to exclude many essential workers, especially those who are women and those who aren't white. Take the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA). It's considered one of the landmark labor laws in U.S. history, protecting the right to form unions and collectively bargain — but it explicitly excluded agricultural and domestic workers. Henry says this was a "racist compromise" to get the vote needed to pass the bill. Excluding these industries cut a huge number of women and, in particular, Black workers out of NLRA protection. According to law scholar Juan F. Perea, "southern congressmen wanted to exclude black employees from the New Deal to preserve the quasi-plantation style agriculture that pervaded the still-segregated Jim Crow South." This sly (but not really) exemption was repeated in other historic legislation of this era, like the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set minimum wage among other things, and the Social Security Act of 1935.
"That's what I think makes this Labor Day so pivotal," says Henry. "The future change that we expect, to finally address the racist and sexist exclusion of working people since the beginning of the nation."
Henry says this glaring exclusion is a part of why the U.S. labor movement lacks strength today, especially relative to other developed countries. It's a movement that's less unified, with unequal empowerment, given that Black and other workers of color, as well as women, were vindictively barred from joining many unions and excluded from protections for so long. You can look to the present day and see the ripple effects; industries with a high proportion of women and non-white workers often have some of the lowest wages.
The future of work is unions
So what can we do to reverse all these decades of exclusion? To start, unions for all — for you, your friends, your enemies, your Twitter followers, the last person you came within six feet of during your daily social-distanced walk. Chances are, they're not in a union. In 2019, only 10.5% of Americans were union members. When counting just people working in the private sector, it's actually 6.4%. In the 1950s, union membership hit a high of 33%.
Though the NLRA during the New Deal Era excluded a huge swath of workers, labor groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the United Farm Workers have since fought hard to gain rights state by state.
"We [need to] back the demands that workers are making to unrig the rules," Henry says. "We just had 44,000 family child care providers, primarily Black and Brown women in California, win their union after 17 years of battling." Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law last year that addressed the NLRA exclusion by explicitly allowing family child care providers to form a union in California, and providers recently voted to unionize.
These kinds of sector-wide, multi-employer unions would be the quickest path to the empowerment of workers, particularly essential workers who were historically excluded from labor law — so it matters who we elect at the state and federal levels. "If McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King were told by the next president of the United States to come to a national bargaining table with the fast food workers and reach a collective bargaining agreement nationally," says Henry, "we could organize 4 million workers all at once. That's why we're on the streets."
"And then the public has to show up for workers in backing it," she continues. "People have said this is a reckoning on racial and economic justice. We're trying to back the reckoning with a set of demands that actually change things in bold and structural ways on the other side of the November election."
Strikes are one way that workers in these industries have consistently been demanding structural change, and they aren't just a recent phenomenon of COVID-19, though they've become more visible. Fight For $15, for example, has been fighting for a $15 per hour federal minimum wage as well as the right for fast food workers to unionize since 2012.
But this year, workers from diverse industries are getting involved. Last week, athletes in the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and MLS (who are all unionized) briefly went on strike in solidarity with Black Lives Matter after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. "I thought it was another source of inspiration," says Henry. "It's the inspiration I felt when Amazon workers walked off the job, or when we had nursing home workers walk off the job and win a union in three weeks."
"I think it would be great if we could create solidarity between the NBA players and the Black and Brown essential workers who've never been valued," Henry says. "I think they could use their platform to make the case that McDonald's workers need to be respected and treated with dignity, as an example — that's in my dreams for the future."
It's dangerous and difficult for many working Americans to go on strike even for a day. "Healthcare workers have to give a 10-day notice," says Henry. "A lot of workers are prohibited by law from striking during their collective bargaining agreement. We can't strike in support of each other." In spite of the risk, tens of thousands of essential workers joined the Strike For Black Lives this past July, fighting for racial and economic justice in the many ways that they overlap — and it's important that we applaud them as much as we applaud professional athletes who strike.
While the current moment is unique — "unprecedented" is the word we keep hearing — looking back at Labor Days past helps us remember what's at the core is an older struggle. This is just one drawn-out chapter of it — the best one yet, we hope.
"All of the essential workers I've been listening to in the past six months have said to me that they are holding inside themselves an equal amount of sadness and hope," Henry says. "And it's really hard to hold both. Because of the amount of death and infection that they've had to witness, either at the hands of police or because of the lack of personal protective equipment in their workplaces, there's a lot of grief that people are holding. But there's a lot of hope — because young people are in the streets, demanding change, and working people have either been in the streets or walking off their job, demanding change."
"It's time to rebuild America," says Henry. "But we've got to build it in a way that's brand new, and doesn't sow the racial and gender inequity that has existed since we were founded."