Labor Day is part of an increasing number of holidays (Memorial Day and Veterans Day also come to mind) that are losing their underlying meaning. Memorial Day is the start of the summer movie season as much as it is about our fallen soldiers, Veterans Day is the oft-forgotten day off in November, and Labor Day? Well that’s typically either the last day to soak in some rays at the summer pool (or wear white) or the best day to take advantage of back-to-school sales at your local department store.
But Labor Day is something to celebrate, and yes that even applies to Republicans, who have rightly grown suspicious of the modern labor movement. After all, labor was on the frontline in the fight for many worker protections that we now take for granted, things like the five-day workweek, safe workplaces, paid overtime, and child labor protections.
Even the history of Labor Day itself is a display in the one-time usefulness of the labor movement. As TIME’s Jennifer Latson explores in depth, the holiday was created by President George Cleveland, not because he was a fan of labor, but because he was desperate to get back in their good graces after shutting down a railroad strike. The strike began when George Pullman, creator of the railroad sleeping car, cut his employees wages, but didn’t reduce rent in the town he built to house his workforce. The workers, seeing that Pullman was winning on both ends of the deal, walked out, and the American Railway Union went with them.
President Cleveland, incensed that the strike was creating a transportation nightmare, declared it a federal crime and sent troops to break it. Violence ensued and the body count rose. Eventually the workers stood down, but irreparable damage had been done to Cleveland’s standing among the working class. Labor Day was his last stab at an olive branch, though it didn’t prevent voters from showing him the door in the next election.
But, as Latson explains, it didn’t take long for the urgency of Labor Day to dissipate into another consumerist holiday.
In its 1962 roundup, TIME summarized Labor Day’s implications in commercial, not historical, terms: American consumers switch from gin to whiskey, stock up on light bulbs, and invest in new carpets and furniture. White clothing, of course, disappears from store shelves — and even white accessories sell “at fire-sale rates.”
In supermarkets in the early ’60s, Labor Day also heralded an increase in sales of stew meat, and a decline in cold cuts and hot dogs. TIME lamented: “…down goes the lowly frankfurter; after Labor Day First National Stores, a chain of supermarkets in New England, New York and New Jersey, sell 50% fewer frankfurters and 65% fewer hot dog rolls.”
The labor movement has only weakened further in the decades since that story was written. Fifty years ago, nearly a third of U.S. workers belonged to a union. Today, less than one in 14 private-sector workers (and 10 percent of overall workers) belong to a union. Their popularity has similarly declined. In the 1950s, 75 percent of Americans approved of labor unions. But today, a slim majority of Americans (52 percent) approve, while 42 percent disapprove.
Part of the problem is that unions seem to be relics of an older, industrial era, when it actually made sense to treat workers the same through collective bargaining. But one-size-fits-all arrangements work less well in an entrepreneurial, tech-driven economy that values unique talents. Another problem is that the world has shifted beneath union workers’ feet. We now live in a globalized economy, which means that businesses’ can’t blithely pass higher wage costs on to consumers, who are being presented with high quality, affordable options from abroad.
But a major part of the problem is self-inflicted. They’ve been so myopic in their thinking about wages and pensions that they decimated the automobile, textile and steel industries, three of their largest employer bases. Their workplace demands are so fussy that they hamper productivity, drive up costs and unnecessarily anger would-be allies. And their methods, which require workers to join a union, pay dues, and in some cases can even bully people into voting the “right way,” are so anti-democratic that they’re impossible to justify.
Given all that, it should come as little surprise that the number of “right to work” states continues to climb and that the fortunes of workers in those states continues to outpace those in unionized states. As an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explained earlier this year:
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2003-13 states with such laws increased their employment rolls by 9.5%—nearly three percentage points more than the national average and more than double the growth in non-right-to-work states. These weren’t average jobs, either. They were good-paying positions with increasing wages. Personal incomes in those states grew 12% more than in states without right-to-work protections during that same 10-year period, according to a 2014 study by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
But even as the benefits of “right to work” come into clearer focus, it doesn’t behoove us to lose sight of the many benefits that the labor movement has brought us. It’s just too bad that it has been coopted by political idealogues.