Image: Labor Day, circa 1900, Buffalo NY via Wikimedia Commons license
Labor Day began during a time when people in the United States were working 12-hour days, seven days a week to survive.
Children were working, too – some as young as 5 and 6 years old — at a small fraction of the adult wage. To make things even worse, there were no safety standards, which meant deaths and injuries on the job were just accepted as a risk of trying to feed yourself and your family.
Mill Children In Macon, By Lewis Hine, 1909. Image Public Domain.
Unions were beginning to take hold as a balance, fighting back against all of this and the extreme political power that the Rockefellers and the Carnegies held as well.
On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took to the streets in New York City and marched from City Hall to Wendel’s Elm Park. This was to be the first Labor Day parade.
Why did they march? Primarily for the eight-hour work day. They were tired of working all day and all night, and they were willing to risk jail and loss of their jobs in order to fight for a better life.
It actually took 12 years for it to become a national holiday, when a massive strike was put down by federal troops, and Congress decided it was time to appease working people with a symbolic gesture. You know, kinda like Congress usually does — symbolic gestures are its stock-in-trade.
In the video below, economist Robert Reich illustrates what we need in order for Labor Day to have real meaning again in this country. Here are the six things:
1. A living wage.
$7.25 is nowhere close to a living wage for anyone. I post things regularly about minimum wage on my public Facebook page, and the usual pushback from haters is, “It was never meant to be a living wage.”
Oh, yeah? The architect of the minimum wage, none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said some things about that in the Statement on National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 and also in the years leading up to it first becoming law in 1938:
No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”
By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.”
Image CC licensed, NH Labor News
The real dollar value of the minimum wage has gone down from a high in 1968, of about $11 to what it is today, $7.25. Remember that little issue of people working 12-hour days, seven days a week, 130-some years ago, that kinda started the Labor Day concept?
Well, people today working for minimum wage frequently have to do exactly that in order to survive. And this does not include the fact that some tipped workers make $2.13 an hour minimum wage before tips. Not even kidding.
(And another bonus: When we raise the minimum, it floats all boats.)
2. A Larger Earned Income Tax Credit
This is something that some politicians are trying to get rid of in some states. What does it do? Basically, it gives tax credits to low and moderate income workers, especially those with kids. And tax credits for working people and poor people help them buy the basics, like food, some basic medicines, and — with luck — maybe some transportation. Which … creates jobs.
3. Universal, Affordable Child Care
Access to affordable child care is something that working people — especially moms — need, and frequently don’t have, in order to be able to do their jobs and even get promoted to better-paid positions in the companies and organizations where they work. Bringing your kid to work sounds like something fun to do maybe one day a year, but otherwise … umm, no.
4. Good Schools and Access to College
Good schools make a vast difference in the lives of the kids who go to them, but attacks on education and those who work in schools — which started with the Great Recession of 2008 — continue even today. We need to change our priorities, folks. Pronto.
5. Health Insurance for all. Single payer now!
Despite its problems, Obamacare — a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act — is working and making a difference in the lives of millions of people. But the real solution is a universal health care system — something that the ACA took the place of. It’s obvious that this is the way we need to go, like most of the sane industrialized world.
6. Union Rights
Union membership in the private sector is the lowest it’s ever been. At the same time, good union jobs in the public sector have been under attack for at least 30 years. One huge way we can fix that is through card check recognition — that is, if enough people at a company or work location put their signature on cards that say they want to be members, the company signs off on it and that’s it. No campaigns to threaten workers (as happened at my last employer), no long, drawn-out election processes where some workers can be fired — and therefore the rest intimidated — simply recognize the union and done.
Here’s economist Robert Reich to break it all down:
(And yes, those are all his own drawings!)