Opinion | Labor Day is over — its history never is

Our celebration of workers should be more than just a day off.


Ryan Adams

The American flag flies above the Old Capitol Building on Thursday, January, 24, 2019. The semester theme of “The American Dream” celebrates the diversity and perseverance of the American people.

Adam Engelbrecht, Opinions Columnist

I am writing this on Labor Day, relaxing on my couch because, like many students and workers, I have the day off. We have been given this day off in order to commemorate workers and their achievements over the years.

For most folks, however, that is where the significance of Labor Day ends — if it even gets that far in the first place. This piece will run on Wednesday, two days after Labor Day, and by this time the holiday will be a distant memory, and the vast majority of people will have gained nothing of substance.

I believe we need to push back against this. Labor day is one of the nation’s most important holidays on the federal calendar — so important that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said it “must be one of the most significant days on our calendar.”

And for damn good reason.

Labor organizers fought tooth and nail for many of the things we take for granted today.

Prior to any wide-scale labor movement, the norm wasn’t a 40-hour work week. It was 100. It was only through protests, strikes, and riots that laborers were able to achieve what we hold today as the modern standard for a workday.

Unions also fought to give us the weekends we enjoy with our families. They were instrumental in drumming up the political will to pass the Fair Labor Standards act in 1938. Included in this was overtime, minimum wage, and child labor.

But these rights were not won with simple congressional hearings and presentations. They were fought for with blood, sweat and tears all across the U.S., in strikes that were horribly persecuted by both corporations and the government.

Among the most important strikes in American history was the Pullman Strike of 1894, which was led by Eugene V. Debs.

A total of 80,000 workers took part in the strike. For two and a half months, Pullman train cars went unhandled by the striking employees, as they fought for higher wages, recognition of the American Railway Union, and rent reduction.

But the Pullman Strike is not a success story. Eventually, the federal government obtained an injunction on the strike, and sent the military in to break it. It ended violently, with 30 strikers being killed.

The Pullman Strike marks the beginning of a long history of strike breaking and union busting in the U.S., as well as the systematic disintegration of the rights of union members, or the ability to form a union in the first place.

All this is to say that as Labor Day comes and goes, we can’t stop paying attention to the struggles of workers. Interconnected with their fight for better pay and safer working conditions is the fate of all of us.

One of the biggest effects of the weakened labor movement has been income inequality. There is a striking reverse correlation between union participation and amount of money going to the very rich.

Simply put, the more unions we have, the less money Jeff Bezos and the Walton family make.

As of 2018, union participation was around 10% of workers. Consequently, our middle class is disappearing, wealth inequality is rising, and more and more workers go without benefits that could be won with a union.

The history of Labor Day is important as it reminds us that it is not just American soldiers who fought and died for our freedoms, but average citizens who craved nothing more than for our great country to live up to the promises it makes to us all.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.

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