Labor Day: What it Means
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
The First Labor Day to Now
The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883.
In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.
But times have changed. Today, Labor Day is largely an occasion for sales, end-of-summer cookouts and back-to-school preparations. Why? Because the movement has sharply diminished and dramatically changed.
In 1954, more than one in three American workers was a union member. Today, it’s less than one in 14 private-sector workers — but, in a huge shift, more than one-third of public-sector workers. Indeed, 40 percent of all union members today work for government.
Yet even as pro-union a president as Franklin Delano Roosevelt — who did more than any other chief executive to extend organized labor’s reach — was certain that unions had no place in government service. As he wrote in 1937: “All government workers should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
And strikes by public employees, he wrote, are “unthinkable and intolerable.”
The way FDR’s warning has gone by the wayside is probably a major reason why public support for unions is way down — and why huge Labor Day parades are a distant memory.
But a day of thanks and a public salute is still due to all those working men and women who — in the words of one of the holiday’s originators, AFL co-founder Peter McGuire — “from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Have a safe and fun Labor day!