Over the last few decades, union membership has dropped considerably while anti-union rhetoric has sky-rocketed. Graphic by Conner Maggio

Labor Day part of larger historical tapestry

Labor Day is the result of decades of union work, but the history of the holiday goes underappreciated in modern politics.

Last Monday, we celebrated a day off before our third week of classes. However, most of us have never really paused to consider the day we are supposed to use to allegedly honor labor.

The year 1882 was the height of organized labor in American history, as unions sought to collectively tackle the ills of the Gilded Age. New York issued the first ever Labor Day as a way to highlight the advancements made in the social and economic conditions of America’s working class; the holiday kicked off nationwide over the next several years, and the day became linked to an idea that is now lost in 21st century America: that labor is the key component in American life.

I don’t mean that Americans don’t understand that labor allows the economy to function, but rather that the rise of neoliberalism has successfully shifted that language of success from the worker to the manager. Neoliberalism is a complicated topic that has numerous definitions, but, to sum it up, it is defined as the corporatization of society. Life becomes not about your private place as a citizen, but your ability as a rational market actor. If you do not conform and prove successful in certain economically advantageous sectors, then you supposedly deserve your place in the bottom of society. Neoliberalism changes your meaning as a being full of potential to a kind of economic fixture that can and should be adjusted depending on what the market needs.

To return to labor specifically, the rise of unions ended the stranglehold that businesses possessed over the American economy in the early 20th century. Unions struggled for decades, but successfully ended child labor laws and cemented the idea of a minimum wage. Furthermore, by combining their might with the greatest modern president in Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they ushered in the New Deal, guaranteeing Americans pensions, Social Security and even more safety regulations to protect the invaluable resource that is the American worker. Even after Roosevelt’s death, they were a primary motivator in the greatest economic boom in American history by creating a platform on which the Greatest Generation could use to stand when they returned from the Second World War. The soldiers and heroes at home were able to earn that honorific because organized labor asserted itself as an equalizing mechanism between individual workers and companies. With increased protections granted by the New Deal, greater access to funding, popular support and political backing that influenced every major sector in the US economy, unions sank income inequality to its historical nadir.

Unfortunately, though it took nearly a century for unions to finally triumph, it only needed a decade for all of their progress to unravel. We live in the New Gilded Age, governed by a neoliberal elite, both Democratic and Republican, that wants to convince you that unions are job-killers and want to bring evil regulations that will collapse the economy. First, unions don’t kill jobs; they promote competition, raise pay and fight for benefits to which every human being should be entitled. Second, regulations protect us from harmful practices that corporations will inevitably perpetuate for the sake of their bottom line. The notion that businesses will regulate themselves is not only fallacious but laughable. To put this into a simple equation, when the American government has taken a laissez-faire approach to business, it has led to an increase in poverty and income inequality, a decline in services and a resounding collapse of the American economy (see 1893, 1929, 1990 and 2008). When the American government protects unions and regulates the marketplace, poverty decreases, the American economy booms and quality of life soars (see 1945–1980).

None of what I just argued is bias or even commentary; it is the collective academic consensus of economists, sociologists, historians and political scientists. If you find yourself on the other side of the argument despite centuries of data and expertise, open a history book and read it. If that doesn’t work, open and read another one until it sticks in your brain that unions did and continue to improve the life of the average American. We should recognize Labor Day as a shadow of its former meaning, and seek to restore its original intent: to improve every American’s economic condition, regardless of where they fall on the corporate ladder. Only then will we see many of America’s economic issues resolved.

Post Author: Andrew Nolan