Labor Day is just around the corner, and with it, great sales and BBQs. But this year, the festival’s activist roots were especially evident as unions questioned the treatment of workers — on car lines from Hollywood to Detroit.
Honoring workers in early September has been an official holiday for nearly 130 years, but bold labor movements have created an environment closer to the era when Labor Day was born. As in the late 1800s, workers are facing rapid economic transformation and a widening pay gap between them and their new industrial billionaire leaders, reflecting the deep inequality of more than a century ago.
“There are a lot of historical parallels between when Labor Day originated and today,” Todd Vachon, an assistant professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, told The Associated Press. “Then, they had We had the Carnegies and the Rockefellers. Today, we have Musk and the Bezoses. … It was a similar period of transition and change, and a period of resistance — working people wanting some kind of dignity. “
With writers and actors on strike, contentious contract negotiations leading to a new labor deal for 340,000 UPS union workers, and active picket lines across multiple industries, Labor Day labor is once again at the forefront of the holiday, arguably more than ever . in recent memory.
Here’s some information about Labor Day this year.
When is the first Labor Day?
Labor Day’s origins date back to the late 1800s, when activists first sought to establish a day to honor workers.
On September 5, 1882, the first American Labor Day celebration was held in New York City. About 10,000 workers took part in the march organized by the Central Trade Union and the Knights of Labour.
In the years that followed, a handful of cities and states began passing laws recognizing Labor Day, but it took President Grover Cleveland more than a decade to sign an act of Congress in 1894 to make the first Monday in September a regular holiday. for statutory holidays.
That same year, Labor Day officially went into effect in Canada, more than two decades after unions were legalized in the country.
National holidays were instituted during a time of critical action by organized labor. In the United States, Vachon refers to the Pullman Railroad Strike that began in May 1894 and which effectively crippled rail traffic across much of the country.
“The federal government intervened in a very violent way to stop the strike, which resulted in the deaths of a dozen workers,” Vachon said. Cleveland quickly made Labor Day a national holiday in an attempt to “repair workers’ trust.”
Organized labor groups have been making a broader push for some time. George Villanueva, an associate professor of communications and journalism at Texas A&M University, noted that during Chicago’s deadly Haymarket incident in 1886, workers were required to work eight-hour days. To commemorate that conflict, May Day was made a larger international holiday, he said.
Vachan said part of the reason for the separate federal holiday in the United States was to distract attention from May Day, which is more closely associated with socialist and radical labor movements in other countries.
How has Labor Day evolved over the years?
The meaning of Labor Day has changed a lot since the first parade in New York City.
For millions, it’s turned into a long weekend, with big sales, end-of-summer festivities and, of course, one last chance to wear white fashion.Whether the celebration stays true to the festival’s origins depends on where you live
For example, New York and Chicago held marches for thousands of workers and their unions. Such celebrations are less frequent in areas where unionization has historically eroded or was not dominant in the first place, Vachan said.
When Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, U.S. unions faced a lot of controversy, with courts often ruling strikes illegal, leading to violent disputes, Vachan said. Private sector employees were not granted the right to join unions until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. In the late 20th century, states also began passing legislation allowing public sector unions, but even today, not all states allow public sector workers to bargain collectively.
The rate of organized labor nationwide has been declining for decades. In 1953, more than 35 percent of private sector workers were unionized, compared with about 6 percent today. Political leanings in different regions also play a role, with blue states tending to have higher rates of unionization.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hawaii and New York each have the highest rates of union membership in 2022, followed by Washington, California and Rhode Island,
Nationally, the number of public and private sector workers who are unionized actually rose by 273 million last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found. But the overall labor force is growing faster, meaning the overall share of union membership has fallen slightly.
What kind of industrial action will we see this year?
Despite the percentage drop, a rejuvenated labor movement is once again in the national spotlight.
In Hollywood, screenwriters have been on strike for nearly four months, surpassing the 100-day shutdown that shut down many film productions in 2007-2008. Negotiations are set to resume on Friday. In July, actors joined the picket line — both unions are seeking better compensation and protections for the use of artificial intelligence.
Last month, unionized workers at UPS threatened a massive strike before ratifying a new contract that included increased wages and safety protections for workers. A UPS strike would disrupt supply chains across the country.
Autoworkers also voted overwhelmingly last month to give union leaders the right to strike against Detroit auto companies if a contract agreement cannot be reached by the Sept. 14 deadline. American Airlines flight attendants also voted to go on strike this week.
“I think Labor Day this year will definitely focus more on labor issues than in recent years,” Vachon said. Organizing around labor rights “has renewed national attention. … (Workers) are standing up and fighting for it.”