Today is the Labor Day holiday in the United States. This is the first time since I finished graduate school that I have it as a paid holiday. I am a contingent worker and have very few actually enforceable labor rights even though I am a professional worker. The only reason I am being paid for this holiday now is because I am working on a project for the Federal Government. This gig is still contingent, and, when their systems are malfunctioning, I am denied the ability to work a full forty hours. I can and will be let go with an hour’s notice once the project ends. There will be no warning and no severance.
Labor Day was created at the end of the 19th Century as a “yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” via Department of Labor.
The History of the US Labor Movement in Brief
The history of labor relations between the owners and the workers has been violent and contentious in the US. Many people were killed for demanding an 8 hour day, safe working conditions, the end of child-labor, Social Security, Medicare, and sufficient time off. The State very often sided with the owners of capital. Over the bodies of workers.
In 1911, we saw the deadliest industrial accident in US history at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The death toll was so high because the doors had been blocked to prevent workers from taking unscheduled breaks. Labor leaders Francis Perkins saw some of the workers jump to their deaths from the high windows. It lived with her for the rest of her life. She began working even harder to improve factory conditions. Her labor work led her to meeting and impressing Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. He later appointed her as the very first Secretary of Labor. They worked together to create The New Deal. Perkins was pragmatic in all things and her story matters greatly to the history of our country. Leaders today would do well to learn about her style and ability to compromise.
Many of the advances in corporate bottom-lines are due to automation and more efficient workers, due in part to technological advances. The gains are not trickling-down to the laborers. The C-Suite has grown in size and earning capacity. When Reagan broke the unions in the 1980s, he made it possible for owners to succeed at the very expense of laborers. This is the fulcrum for the decline of the middle-class in many sections of our country. The good union jobs went away or the factory closed and the workers have not been able to adapt to the new labor market. Whole regions have experienced brain-drain as the young flee after college to find a sustainable employment environment.
Right now, there is a moment across the US for a $15 hour minimum-wage. Some companies (Walmart) and cities are making changes on their own to try and forego new regulations. In many cities, it is impossible for a person making minimum wage to afford even a 1 bedroom apartment while working full-time. It is unsustainable.
Direct actions and protests like the Occupy Wall Street, Fight for Fifteen, and anti-WTO groups will continue. Fights at the Supreme Court regarding the Family and Medical Leave Act and employer-based health coverage will continue.
As for me, I’m grateful for people who fought to allow women to work, who sought non-discrimination protections for LGBTQIA people, and who gave me a cause of action if my employer is risking my life. There’s still a ways to go, but thank you.
How are you spending your Labor Days?