To say the least, these moneyed interests, the media outlets they sponsor and the political puppets they own have no interest in venerating a labor movement that challenges plutocracy. And so just like the modern celebration of Martin Luther King Day often ignores Dr. King’s economic justice campaigns, so too does Labor Day typically circumvent a celebration of organized labor.
But that doesn’t mean it has to, or that we have to just accept that reality. There are ways to take back this holiday — especially considering public sentiment.
Yes, despite the withering rhetorical and public policy assault on unions, polls show that organized labor retains high approval ratings among Americans and that most citizens do not support the highest-profile efforts to undermine and demonize the labor movement. That public opinion suggests if more people are simply reminded of what Labor Day is really all about, there’s a decent chance we can restore its real significance. Here are just a few of those reminders:
- Legislation creating Labor Day did not pass the Congress in response to Americans’ demand for yet one more reason to sleep in, fire up the grill, drink beer and watch football. It passed the Congress as an outraged response to the U.S. government helping a rapacious corporation violently crush striking unionists who dared to fight for their economic rights.
- Labor Day was not designed to give you a day off to commemorate the end of your summer nor to give parents a special day to hit the chain stores for back-to-school sales. It was designed to give us all a chance to honor and commemorate the American labor movement and all of its achievements for millions of workers — union and non-union alike. These achievements include (among other things) higher wages, healthcare benefits, child labor laws, the eight-hour workday and the weekend.
- Labor Day was not created to give you one last day to work on your tan or to get drunk in the park at an annual picnic. Labor Day was created to give you a day to attend or participate in some sort of public event showing your solidarity with the American labor movement. As AFL leader Samuel Gompers said in the years after the holiday was created, it is a day when workers’ “rights and their wrongs would be discussed … (when they) may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.”
- Labor Day was not designed to be cast as an apolitical holiday that everyone should pretend they honor because they simply support the apolitical notion of work. The “labor” in Labor Day refers not to generic “work” but to organized labor — as in unions. That makes it a deeply political occasion celebrating the ideas of worker solidarity against corporate power and organizing for collective economic rights. It is a day, in other words, to honor what even President Ronald Reagan recognized: namely, that “the right to belong to a free trade union” is “one of the most elemental human rights” and that “where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”
- Labor Day is not designed to be a day for anti-union politicians and corporations to say “Happy Labor Day” and momentarily pretend they support the rights of American workers. It is a day for Americans to speak out against union-busting activity and vitriolic anti-union rhetoric, whether that abhorrent activity and ugly rhetoric pops up in big box stores, in state legislatures in plutocrats’ campaign ads or in schoolhouses. It is also a day for us to consider new and simple ways to better protect the rights of workers to form unions.