What does the history of Labor Day mean for its future?


Art for Social Justice by Ricardo Levins Morales

For many, the legacy of Labor Day has been forgotten. We forget about the struggle that so many fought and even died for to achieve decent working conditions. We take for granted that children no longer have to slave away in American factories for 17 hours a day, six days a week. We undervalue what it took to get the weekend. After all, that’s what makes Labor Day such a treat in the first place–we get a three-day weekend instead of the boring old two. And for those of us still lucky enough, the 40 hour work week is just the standard.

Longtime president and founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers said:

“Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day…is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

For those of us in the Labor Movement, it becomes a bit frustrating when the public sees this important holiday as just the final chance to take a long weekend trip before a balmy summer fades into a crisp fall. That’s why it’s up to us to keep the legacy alive and thriving through the work we do every day. Labor Day is not just about what workers fought so hard to attain in the past, it’s about what we’re doing right now to stay strong in this new and unique shifting economy. It’s easy to get discouraged. We’ve faced two decades of watching the very jobs that reminded us daily that we were the backbone of the most envied economy in the world disappear before our very eyes. The jobs that made it possible for us and our families to take part in the American Dream.

Even in the face of the worst recession in decades, we continued to work hard, taking pride in our efforts. We delivered quality work that couldn’t be matched anywhere else in the world only to see our wages stagnate and jobs shipped overseas just to boost the bottom line for CEOs.

But it’s important to remember that the great American middle class was not something that just happened. It was built brick-by-brick, with the hard work of our parents and grandparents and the unions that represented them. It was they who created the 40-hour work week, paid vacations and wages that were once the envy of the world. Getting back to that isn’t easy, but at least we have a blueprint.

The good news is, all across California, the fruits of our labor are beginning to sprout again. From the farmlands of the Central Valley to the sprawling tech offices of the Silicon Valley, we’re hearing the rumbling of change. It’s America 2.0. Some of the energy may have shifted to industries that our grandparents could have never fathomed, but at its core, it’s is still the same: Working people standing together, bargaining together, igniting hope and restoring America’s promise.

Unions are leading a renaissance in our new economy. We’re fighting to improve wages for those working two or three jobs and still falling below the poverty line. We’re fighting to stop corporate bosses from stealing the hard-earned pay workers earn. We’re fighting to give every worker in California the chance to earn a few paid sick days on the job. We’re standing up for immigrant workers, leading the charge on federal immigration reform and pushing legislation to protect temporary workers from abuse. We’re retraining workers for the jobs of the future and advocating to reduce class sizes in our schools so that teachers can teach and students can learn. We’re pushing for more funding to our colleges so that California can remain a world leader in innovation. We’re taking a stand against Wall St. excess.

When workers stand together, anything is possible. And CEOs know that, which is precisely why they’ll do anything in their power, including spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elect their cronies, to stop us. Our strength in numbers is the only thing that can match their strength in dollars.

It’s up to us to not allow the soaring vision from our grandparents’ generation we’ve caught glimpses of to go dark. So this Labor Day let’s reflect on what makes this holiday so special but let’s not forget that to get back to the great American middle class, we need to do what has been done generations before us.

Whether you’re a firefighter or teacher, a Walmart worker or a security officer—working people of this state need to stand together to bring back the American Dream.  We need to stand together at the polls this fall to ensure the flood of corporate cash in this year’s election doesn’t drown out our voices. We need to stand together on the job to stop CEOs from taking the whole pie and leaving workers to fight over the crumbs. And we need to stand together in the streets to fight for justice for everyone.

Together, we always win.