What DOES Labor Day Really Mean, Anyway?

Of all of us currently in the throes of the Labor Day weekend, how many are thinking about what Labor Day really means?  For many people, Labor Day signifies the end of summer and back-to-school time.  It’s the first guaranteed three-day weekend since Memorial Day, and the first holiday since July 4.  The more fashion-conscious among us may be worrying about whether they can still wear white.  (Apparently, that rule is loosening.)  The politicos are gearing up for the home stretch of this year’s election campaign season, while sports fans are welcoming football’s return.  (See Labor Day – Wikipedia entry.)  But how many people who work for a living are thinking about what Labor Day means to them personally?  Or to us collectively as a nation?

Those who spend the most time observing Labor Day in a manner closest to its original purpose of facilitating “a street parade to exhibit to the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations'” tend to be the modern incarnation of those organizations — labor unions.  (See History of Labor Day.)  However, we live in a time where the strength of the labor movement has declined, and many of the parades have become secular in purpose, featuring high school marching bands and glad-handing politicians, not proud union members.  And how many workers actually identify with those organizations, with less than 10% of the workforce currently unionized?  Most workers don’t see Labor Day as being about them, or if they do, it’s only because they get an extra paid day off that they wouldn’t have otherwise (or bonus pay for working that day.)

Passing the Employee Free Choice Act could help change that dynamic, and you’ll hear a lot about that proposed legislation this Labor Day, both here at Today’s Workplace and elsewhere. Making it easier for people who want to join unions to do so will undoubtedly increase the sheer numbers of unionized workers and strengthen what we know as the traditional “labor movement.”

But the labor movement, regardless of its power and strength, cannot alone transform the workplace:  many have a role to play.  Lawyers representing union and non-union workers in discrimination and wage and hour cases have helped transform individual employers and even entire industries.  Authors, journalists and legal scholars can help us look at where we’ve been and where we’re going, so that we can avoid past mistakes and make the very best of what we have now the standard for the future.  Even progressive employers can play a significant role, as those who not only obey the law–but go above and beyond to treat their workers fairly–find that decreased labor strife, morale problems, and turnover contribute to a better bottom line while being the right thing to do.  Between 90 million American workers, and all those who have a stake in what happens in the workplace, there’s no reason why virtually everyone shouldn’t consider themselves part of the labor movement, yet too few see themselves that way.

At Workplace Fairness, we’ve assembled some of the best and brightest minds this Labor Day who can tackle what the holiday really means–what workers should be thinking about right now, when wages are stagnant, the housing market is unstable, and economic fears are weighing heavily on our minds.  As Steven Greenhouse (who will be joining this conversation) points out in his new book, The Big Squeeze:

A profound shift has left a broad swath of the American workforce on a lower plane than in decades past, with health coverage, pension benefits, job security, workloads, stress levels, and often wages growing worse for millions of workers.  That the American worker faces this squeeze in the early years of this century is particularly troubling because the squeeze has occurred while the economy, corporate profits, and worker productivity have all been growing robustly.  In recent years, a disconcerting disconnect has emerged, with corporate profits soaring while workers’ wages stagnated.

(See The Big Squeeze at 4-5.)

It’s a trying time for workers.  And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s an election year.  While as a nonprofit organization, we cannot tell you who to vote for, we can tell you that it’s very important to pay attention to what all of the candidates are saying about the economy, jobs, and the importance of workers vs. big business.  If you’re either currently — or a paycheck away — from experiencing what Greenhouse describes, your vote in November is a very real decision about what kind of future you want to have, for yourself and your families.  We hope this conversation will give you the kind of information you need to make that choice.

We’re very excited about this conversation, and hope that you too will join us in our effort to Take Back Labor Day.  If you would like to join our roster of guest bloggers, contact us;  we certainly don’t want to exclude anyone with something important to say.  Otherwise, please jump into the conversation in our comments section, and tell your friends as well.  It will take more than just talk — no matter how eloquent — to transform the American workplace, but we have to start somewhere, and what better time to do it than now?

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.