It’s Labor Day, and while for many of us all that means is an extended weekend, there are some people who still have to go to work today. Even though there are things Fuzzy and I need from the grocery store, I have a personal issue with frequenting any retail establishment on Labor Day (or really, on any national holiday) because I believe doing so merely encourages companies to extend work hours. Yes, our society has essentially become a 24/7 one, but that doesn’t mean it hurts any of us to take a break from time to time.
In any case, Labor Day wouldn’t exist without labor unions, and while it’s debatable whether or not they still serve a purpose in our era, the fact remains that they’ve done a lot of good, and not just for workers. Here are five things you should remember about Labor Day, taken from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee blog:
The Weekend: The ultra-right Mises Institute notes that in the relatively labor union-free year of 1870, the average workweek for most Americans was 61 hours — almost double what most Americans work now. In response to this, in the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century, labor unions engaged in massive strikes in order to demand shorter workweeks so that Americans could be home with their loved ones instead of constantly toiling for their employers with no leisure time. By 1937, these labor actions created enough political momentum to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, which helped create a federal framework for a shorter workweek that included room for workers to spend time with their families and engage in other leisurely activities.
Widespread Employer-Based Health Coverage: As unions grew in numbers in the 1930s and 40s, there was a rapid expansion of employers offering their employees health care. As Health Affairs notes, “In industries dominated by a few giant firms, unions used their “countervailing power” to make the firms share some of their potential profits with workers in the form of high wages and generous health insurance benefits.”
Ending Child Labor: The first American Federation of Labor (AFL) national convention passed “a resolution calling on states to ban children under 14 from all gainful employment” in 1881, and soon after states across the country adopted similar recommendations, leading up to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act which regulated child labor on the federal level for the first time.
The Family and Medical Leave Act: Labor unions as part of the AFL-CIO federation led the fight for this 1993 law, which “requires state agencies and private employers with more than 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave annually for workers to care for a newborn, newly adopted child, seriously ill family member or for the worker’s own illness.”
Keeping Income Inequality In Check: As research from the Center for American Progress has shown, the middle class had its largest share of national income at exactly the same time that union membership was highest in the United States. In 1967, the middle class had approximately 53 percent of the national income, while 27 percent of workers belong to a union. By 2007, the middle class’s share of national income dropped to around 46 percent with a union membership rate of around 11 percent.