Labor Day began not as a national holiday but in the streets, when, on September 5, 1882, thousands of bricklayers, printers, blacksmiths, railroad men, cigar makers, and others took a day off and marched in New York City. “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will” read one sign. “Labor creates all wealth,” read another. A placard in the following year’s parade read, “We must Crush the Monopolies Lest they Crush Us.” The movement for the holiday grew city by city and eventually the state and federal authorities made it official.
The national holiday emerged 12 years later in the face of a federal crackdown on labor. In 1894, at the behest of railroad companies and industrialists, President Grover Cleveland deployed more than 10,000 U.S. Army troops to break the Pullman strike in Chicago—the first truly nationwide strike, which involved more than 150,000 workers from coast to coast. Protesters were jailed, injured, and killed. Amid the turmoil that summer, and as an olive branch, Cleveland signed legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday.
Eugene Debs, the leader of the Pullman strike, dismissed the corporate paternalism of industrialist George Pullman, who sought to take care of “our poor workingmen.” The real issue, Debs said, was “What can we do for ourselves?” This—the labor movement's foundational values of self-determination and self-reliance—is what makes Labor Day a quintessentially American celebration.
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Perhaps the main reason Labor Day’s meaning has been lost amid picnics and holiday sales is the decline of unions. Union membership across the country has shrunk to less than one in eight (35.3 percent among public-sector workers and just 6.7 percent among private-sector workers in 2013) from nearly one in four throughout the 1970s. As membership declined, so did public support. According to a just-released Gallup tracking poll, a slim majority of Americans approve of labor unions—down from as high as three out of four in the booming postwar years.
In the global, post-industrial era, industrial unions have less clout, and public-sector unions face well-resourced attacks from the right. In some cases, unions have left themselves open to criticism by retreating to the bread-and-butter concerns of its membership like wages and benefits, and by not embracing change, continuous reform and accountability, and an expansive vision of shared progress. Important new campaigns, though, are underway in retail stores like Walmart, in the tobacco fields and slaughterhouses where immigrants toil, and in charter schools where idealistic young teachers soon enough realize that they need a collective voice in the workplace to be treated and paid like professionals.
Shoppers this weekend could hardly be blamed for going to Walmart for the latest feather-light flatscreen television from China or Mexico—I’ll admit I’m dazzled by the low prices and pixel counts too. Or, better, people could go to Costco, where workers make about twice the Walmart wage, and don’t have to rely on federal benefits like food stamps and Medicaid (which, according to Americans for Tax Fairness, cost taxpayers $6.2 billion a year). In addition, Costco lets its workers unionize while Walmart instructs managers to report union activity or grumblings about wages to the company’s “Labor Relations Hotline.”
Holiday shoppers will have to wait until Tuesday, though, because Costco is closed on Labor Day. Its workers are where they should be—at the family barbecue or the parade, celebrating our national holiday.