Despite being largely forgotten, Labor Day’s purpose remains ever relevant in our society

Graphic by Maria Nevada

John Kretzschmar

Labor Day stands alone among our national holidays in that it is the only one dedicated to people who just do their jobs. It was enacted to honor those organizations that introduce meaningful democracy into the nation’s workplaces.

It is one of three days that organized labor “claimed” as their own. The first day that labor unions chose to celebrate the cause of creating a voice for the formerly voiceless was July 4. Why? An early labor organization explained it this way back in the 1830s, “The objects we have in view are hallowed by the sympathy of patriotism – it is to finish the glorious work of the revolution.”

The second date chosen to honor organized labor’s contributions to everyday wage earners was May 1. Why? It celebrated the anniversary of a nationwide push in 1886 dedicated to achieving the 8-hour workday.

The first Monday in September became a national holiday dedicated to everyday wage earners happened in 1894, when President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law creating the holiday.

There’s a relatively short and clever video that asks the question, “What have American unions, ever done for us?” In the video, the script has a much longer answer than the CEO posing it expected. The answers focus repeatedly on the enactment of laws that created workplace rights and safeguards for all wage earners. Organized labor has as its mission creating an economy where everyone has a fair shot at a piece of the American Dream.

Back in the 1890s, the first president of the American Federation of Labor was asked, “What does labor want?” Samuel Gompers replied this way, “What do we want? More schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning, less crime; more leisure, less greed; more justice, less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”

This first mission statement for organized labor is as true today as it was back then. Gompers statement has the advantage of pointing out the roadblocks that need to be removed. He speaks of the values that will speed a wage earner along the path.

The question on this Labor Day, is do those roadblocks to a piece of the American Dream still exist in 2018?

Historically, unions were the “tools” needed to get along the path. Sadly, in a nation where 61 percent of the populace supports the idea of meaningful workplace democracy, union density is hanging around 11 percent.

If we are to create an economy that promotes the general welfare of the nation as a whole, we need to become the difference makers who help insure that our great nation is one where there truly is “liberty and justice for all!”