Labor Day — Three Viewpoints

Opinion: Labor Day Then and Now — Is It Still Relevant?

Jill Ebstein |

Ask people what comes to mind with the mention of “Labor Day,” and you will most likely hear two responses: “Back to school” and “Can’t wear white.”

This is a far cry from the holiday founders’ intent and might make one wonder whether Labor Day has lost its relevance. A look back at Labor Day’s history and a look forward at 21st-century dynamics might help judge whether Labor Day will stand the test of time.

Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882 when carpenter and labor union leader, Peter McGuire, proposed to the New York Central Labor Union that workers be honored in New York with their own holiday. It took 12 years for President Grover Cleveland to make it a national holiday.

What happened in those 12 years is riveting. America was still experiencing the Industrial Revolution, whose shame included 12-hour workdays, child labor and abysmal working conditions.

Then in 1894, the Pullman strike occurred and changed America’s landscape. At the heart of the strike was a 25 percent wage reduction for workers belonging to the American Railway Union. The depression of 1893 had caused CEO George Pullman to reduce wages. However, he did not lower rents within the “company town” he built for his workers. Workers complained that they could barely feed their families on the original wage.

When leaders of the ARU requested a meeting with Pullman to air grievances, Pullman refused and fired the leaders. This caused thousands of workers to walk off the job.

Massive disruption to rail traffic resulted. The upheaval highlighted the emerging struggle between capital and labor. With both sides dug in, politicians worried about the consequences for the public and turned to the courts for help.

A court injunction was granted, requiring an end to the strike. President Cleveland sent in troops to enforce the ruling. Riots ensued, civilians were killed, and a railroad yard was burned.

In the context of this dissension, President Cleveland called for Labor Day as a national holiday to celebrate workers. He hoped it would diffuse tension and keep labor squarely behind him.

Thus began our commemoration of Labor Day for the last 125 years, usually with parades, barbecues and occasional fireworks. I grew up with the day marking the end of summer and a return to school.

Labor Day is experienced differently today, for reasons that go beyond the pandemic. Most towns are not hosting parades, sponsoring fireworks or encouraging large gatherings.

What else has happened to change our attitude about Labor Day? Consider the following:

The passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act: In 1970, an agency was established to monitor workplace safety. With mandated standards, random inspections, and hefty penalties for noncompliance, the workplace is vastly improved — addressing a major raison d’etre for unions.

Participation in labor unions today: There has been a steep decline in union participation from more than 20 percent in 1983 to just over 10 percent in 2019. Within the private sector, union participation has dwindled to a mere 6 percent, in part due to the decline in U.S. manufacturing, a traditional stronghold of unions. Fewer union employees probably translate to less enthusiasm for the day.

Millennials are not typically big supporters of unions: The union’s value to previous generations was that their interests were protected and defended by union leadership. Members gladly ceded to authority and followed marching orders because benefits ensued — more generous pensions, improved working conditions, and the like.

Today’s millennials view the world differently. They’ve grown up in a gig economy, are skeptical of those in power, and appreciate their independence. The “union drum” is not their beat. They want to make a difference but in their own and independent way.

The decline of Labor Day is not cast in stone, but its value proposition needs an update. Can we use Labor Day to engage on timeless topics that challenge us —  dispute resolution, workforce diversity and health care, for example — seen through a modern lens?

How about those 12-hour shifts that unions were able to cut back to only 8? Our connected devices keep us working all the time. As we sit chained to our laptops, can we reclaim a piece of our lives by insisting, “You can only have so much of me.”

If you find yourself sitting around the picnic table Labor Day weekend, consider starting a conversation about the Pullman Strike, and see if your crew can find any modern-day parallels. Whatever the conclusion, the process might build an appreciation for a holiday that suddenly doesn’t seem so remote.

Jill Ebstein is the editor of the “At My Pace” series of books and the founder of Sized Right Marketing, a Newton, Massachusetts, consulting firm. She wrote this for


Opinion: To Honor Labor Day, Congress Must Keep Front-Line Workers on the Job 

Lee Saunders |

On the first Monday of every September, we celebrate the selflessness and sacrifice of all working people. But this year, the Labor Day tribute takes on even greater weight. Because this year, during the worst public health crisis in a century, working people are rising to the moment in new, extraordinary ways.

Week after grueling week, in the face of adversity and uncertainty, essential workers — so many of them proud union members — have stood fearlessly on the front lines. Public service workers in particular — nurses and EMTs, corrections officers and sanitation workers, school custodians and child care providers, among many others — have led the nation’s coronavirus response and recovery efforts.

They have answered the call in our communities’ hour of most desperate need, putting the health and safety of their neighbors first. They have done so under the most difficult and dangerous conditions, often without personal protective equipment, even when it meant exposing themselves and their families to risk.

If only some politicians in Washington had half the courage. Instead, a majority of U.S. senators has shown callous indifference by refusing to pass a stimulus bill that will throw a lifeline to working families and communities. With the COVID-19 death toll approaching 200,000 and the economy in meltdown, Mitch McConnell, President Trump’s most reliable enabler, is choosing, in his words, to  “push the pause button.”

The result is being felt by Americans in every community — less trash pickup, fewer people to process unemployment claims, a slowdown in essential public services we all need to survive this pandemic. And make no mistake: Trump and McConnell are to blame. Working people don’t want to push the pause button. We want to fight this pandemic and get our economy moving. But right now, when people in public service are needed on the job most, too many are being thanked with pink slips, as states and localities confront devastating fiscal crises. To avoid more layoffs and furloughs, we need a robust package of federal aid to states, cities, towns and schools.

Without this state and local aid, if Congress fails to fund the front lines, the essential services that sustain our communities are on the chopping block. That means dilapidated roads, dirtier water coming out of the tap and longer waits for an ambulance when you call 911. It means our hospitals are overwhelmed and understaffed. It means our schools don’t have the resources to educate our children and keep them safe. Without this aid, everything that makes our neighborhoods safe and strong is compromised. Without it, we will see widespread job loss, in both the private and public sectors.

There should be nothing divisive or controversial about this. Experts on the left and right agree this aid is the key to jumpstarting the economy and preventing this recession from becoming a depression. It is an investment that would more than pay for itself, with each dollar of aid generating $1.70 in economic activity.

Governors and mayors of both parties have lobbied aggressively for it, as has virtually every nonpartisan association of state and local elected officials.

Aid to states, cities, towns and schools isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics. Public support for funding the front lines is overwhelming — 84 percent strong.

And that is where the rubber will meet the road on Election Day two months from now, if obstruction from the Senate continues. Americans will know exactly which elected officials failed to lead in this do-or-die moment, which ones were indifferent to public health, which ones ignored economic imperatives. Voters will hold them accountable and deliver a rude wakeup call on the morning on Nov. 4.

What hangs in the balance is the health of our people, the vitality of our communities and the fundamentals of our economy. Working people defend and fortify these pillars. That is what makes labor strong. This Labor Day more than any other, let us all extend our gratitude to these everyday heroes. When the challenges are greatest, when the stakes are highest, that is when they are at their best.

Lee Saunders is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union of 1.4 million public service workers nationwide. He wrote this for


Opinion: Workers Must Decide Their Future

Chris Shelton |

Labor Day traditionally marks the homestretch of election season. As we race toward November 3, working people have more at stake than ever before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed Donald Trump as a total fraud. Day after day during this crisis, he has bungled the basic functions of leading this country. He has refused to listen to medical experts and has failed to address the coronavirus crisis, causing many unnecessary deaths and making it harder for our nation’s economy to recover. And he is blocking actions in Congress that could help many working families and small businesses get through the crisis.

While in office, he has secured tax breaks for his billionaire buddies and for corporations that move jobs overseas and totally deserted working people. He has put a union-busting lawyer in charge of the Labor Department, gutted workers’ rights, and now he wants to make sure companies can’t face any sort of legal consequences for exposing their workers to COVID-19.

Trump has absolutely no moral compass, no compassion for people who are struggling, and no interest in actually rolling up his sleeves to solve the problems our nation is facing. While millions of underpaid frontline workers are pleading with him to take basic actions to save their jobs and save their lives, Trump is picking fights with his critics on Twitter and fanning the flames of hatred and division in our country.

This crisis has made it abundantly clear: Donald Trump is destroying our country. If working people want our nation to recover from this crisis, we must do every single thing we can to elect Joe Biden in November to be the next president of the United States.

If there is one quality that Trump utterly lacks, it’s compassion. And that’s where Joe Biden shines in comparison. From the actions he has taken during his long career in the Senate and as vice president, we know that Biden truly cares about working people. And unlike all the broken promises Trump made to working people when he was running for office, it’s not just lip service to win votes.

Biden will combat the coronavirus pandemic by ensuring that public health decisions are made by public health professionals — not politicians. He supports requiring employers to provide paid leave so that workers don’t have to choose between their job and staying healthy or caring for sick relatives, and not just during the current crisis, but permanently. As millions of people find their livelihoods at stake, Biden will work with Congress to pass crucial COVID-19 relief to provide funding to keep workers on the payroll and expand access to paid leave and unemployment benefits.

When Biden says that we must “build back better” to recover from the pandemic, it’s clear that for him, better means ensuring that workers are able to join unions and have a say in their working conditions. He knows that unions built the middle class and are necessary to address the inequalities created by an economy that follows the whims of Wall Street instead of serving the needs of working families.

He is ready to undo the damage of the corporate tax cuts that Mitch McConnell and Trump cooked up. Look at what happened at AT&T, which used to boast about being one of the largest majority union employers in the United States and take pride in providing universal telecommunications service to Americans. AT&T got a $20 billion windfall from the corporate tax cut bill and proceeded to cut tens of thousands of good union jobs. The company has reduced its broadband buildout and cut workers who install, repair and maintain the wireline connections that have been critical for public services, schools, businesses and our communities during the pandemic.

A Biden administration will invest in infrastructure — including broadband — and make sure the jobs created by those investments pay union wages. It will ban corporations from using taxpayer money to artificially inflate stock prices through buybacks. And Biden will make sure that all workers — including those at AT&T — have a fair opportunity to join a union.

On Labor Day, as working people, we must decide what we want for our future. And if we want to end Trump’s ego-driven chaos, we must dedicate everything we have to electing Joe Biden and Democrats in the Senate in the fall.

Chris Shelton is president of the Communications Workers of America. He wrote this for


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Scroll to Top