Our cruel Labor Day tradition: We mistreat the workers we celebrate

Labor Day become a national holiday in the 19th century, but a number of important battles still need to be fought

Published September 3, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

People protest near a McDonald's restaurant along the Las Vegas Strip, Nov. 29, 2016. (AP/John Locher)
People protest near a McDonald's restaurant along the Las Vegas Strip, Nov. 29, 2016. (AP/John Locher)

There is a cruel irony to our celebration of Labor Day in 2018 — one that, given the holiday's history, is perhaps appropriate.

The push for a national holiday honoring working people began in the mid-1880s, when a number of municipalities passed ordinances recognizing it as a holiday within their jurisdictions. By the end of that decade, eight states had also passed laws recognizing Labor Day, including Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Nebraska and Pennsylvania. By the time the federal government relented and made Labor Day into a national holiday in 1894, an additional 23 states had passed laws recognizing it as such on their own books.

Yet if you study the history of the late 19th century, you will notice that it was a period in which labor unions were very weak. It wasn't until the early 20th century that America had a Progressive Era — namely, a period in which social and economic reforms were implemented that attempted to restrain the excesses of capitalism. And that is where the parallels between American history from a century ago and American history today come into sharpest relief.

"Progressivism in the early 20th century was more than impulse and a movement," Eric Arnesen, Professor of Modern American Labor History and Vice Dean for Faculty and Administration at George Washington University, told Salon. "It had many different strands. But one of the strands, or one of the themes, was in the sense that unregulated capitalism and an unfettered market was producing a good deal of damage in American society. Environmental damage, damage to workers' bodies and minds, child labor-inflicted damage upon young people. And so there was a sense that unrestrained, unregulated capitalism, left to its own devices, would spin out of control. And it was giving rise to considerable social and political and labor unrest."

He added, "So reformers of various stripes banded together in different moments, in different movements, with different pieces of legislation to attempt to kind of rein in capitalism, as they saw it, run amok. And they put restrictions on it to try to sand off its rough edges, to regulate it so that it would work better and that it would not produce the social conflict that it was producing."

Arnesen also traced the history of progressive reform movements in the United States.

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"The Progressive Era was Stage One. The New Deal was Stage Two and went much further than the reforms of the Progressive Era. And then you fast forward to the late 20th century," Arnesen explained. "And from the 1970s onward, and this picks up speed in the 1980s with the Ronald Reagan administration, there are concerted efforts to dismantle aspects of the welfare state, of the New Deal order, to roll back various progressive reforms. And the notion that the market itself had been fettered, and that economic growth and development and wealth could be unleashed by unfettering the market, involved kind of a forgetting of why we had that regulation in the first place. And it transformed into a celebration of deregulation, of an unfettering of the market, and that meant rolling back environmental legislation, rolling back various banks and financial regulation, and of course rolling back labor legislation."

These periods in American history are important to note. During the Progressive Era Americans gave women the right to vote, strengthened labor unions, began regulating big businesses to account for consumer rights or environmental protection and attempted to address issues like systemic poverty and urban blight. The New Deal era, which refers to the flurry of progressive legislation passed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt between the start of his presidency in 1933 and the onset of World War II, added programs that focused on providing relief for the unemployed, poor, elderly and individuals in economically vulnerable professions (like farmers); creating jobs through government action if and when necessary; regulating the financial system to prevent a repeat of the Great Depression (it is hardly a coincidence that the worst crash since 1929 occurred after many of those regulations were repealed); and implementing free trade policies that would expand market access to ordinary Americans.

After the New Deal, the last period of major progressive reform were the Great Society and War on Poverty programs pushed by President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, which included landmark civil rights legislation for racial minorities, the creation of Medicare and Medicaid and various protections for consumers and the environment.

Yet while the achievements of the 1930s and 1960s were more radical than those from the first two decades of the 20th century, that period is more analogous to the one facing Americans on Labor Day today.

"A number of people, commentators and others, have said that if you're sort of thinking about reform of any sort, the progressive era is the analogous moment, not the 1930s or even the 1960s," Nelson Lichtenstein, Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at the University of California — Santa Barbara, as well as director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, told Salon. "The progressive era was a period of enormous immigration. It was also a period of enormous ethnic tensions. There was already the beginning of a restrictionist movement and racism was pretty strong then. At the same time, when it came to things like the labor movement, it had bursts of militancy but basically, institutionally, it was very weak. But at least there was a reform current."

He added, "While the Progressive Era was in fact the era of the Gilded Age — you had Carnegie and Rockefeller and enormous inequalities of wealth, just because it was called the Progressive Era doesn't mean that it disappeared, there were enormous inequalities of wealth."

As we celebrate Labor Day, it's important that we remember the lessons from American history as it existed 100 years ago. Even though Americans ostensibly honored labor through its celebration of Labor Day, the reality is that working class Americans only began to live in better conditions after they fought tooth and nail for necessary reforms. If we want to live in a better world — one where people are able to work normal hours and receive a decent income for doing so, in which the environment is protected and their products are safe and large corporations can't cause an economic crash through chicanery — then we need to realize that Labor Day as a holiday is not enough.

When it comes to our politics, every day has to be Labor Day.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a professional writer whose work has appeared in multiple national media outlets since 2012 and exclusively at Salon since 2016. He specializes in covering science, health and history, and is particularly passionate about climate change, animal science, disability rights, plastic pollution and the intersections between science and politics. He has interviewed many prominent figures including former President Jimmy Carter, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, animal scientist and activist Temple Grandin, inventor Ernő Rubik, mRNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó, actor George Takei, and right-wing insurrectionist Roger Stone.

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