US Labor Day 2020: A Precarious (and Familiar) Moment

Amid this swirling crisis, the challenges we face are enormous and daunting—but they are not unprecedented

Not since 1932 have U.S. workers celebrated a Labor Day shrouded with more uncertainty.  From many angles, the future seems threatening.  Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. politics were more polarized heading into this election year than they have been at any time since the 19th century. Over the past six months the coronavirus has more than exacerbated the situation. It has taken the lives of 190,000 Americans as uncoordinated and inconsistent governmental efforts to stop its spread have badly failed, further undermining faith in government’s efficacy.  That failure in turn has plunged the economy into the sharpest contraction since the Great Depression, throwing tens of millions out of work with unprecedented rapidity.  As our commitment to caring for those harmed by these events wanes, the unemployed are beginning to experience the utter inadequacy of the U.S. welfare state.  Millions of evictions now loom.  And it is the vulnerable and oppressed workers, immigrants and people of color, who are suffering most in both economic and health terms.


One way or another, the 2020s are going to be a turning point

The depth of the current crisis suggests that one way or another, the 2020s are going to be a turning point. As this year heads toward its final months, we seem to be teetering between two possible futures.  One of them offers great hope.  The glimmers of that future are visible in the multiracial and antiracist Black Lives Matter protests, in the energy that young activists have brought to the fight for a Green New Deal, in the determination of workers to avoid being sacrificed in a vain effort to prop up the economy without first containing COVID-19—a determination evidenced by a proliferation of work stoppages and threatened stoppages.  Yet a darker future also seems possible, one foreshadowed by increasingly open displays of white supremacist activism, the diminished faith in democracy and trust in democratic procedures, and the increasing wealth and power of the wealthiest and most powerful entities, like Amazon, that the pandemic has enabled. 

The first holiday created by social struggle

As we confront this precarious moment, it is worth remembering the circumstances which gave rise to Labor Day in the United States.  We should not forget that it was the first U.S. holiday created by social struggle.  The idea for it emerged in 1882 from union activists in New York City who were involved in the fight for an eight-hour workday.  New York unions held the first Labor Day parade in September of that year.  They repeated in the next year.  And, by 1884, they had settled on the first Monday in September as the date for an annual commemoration and urged union members in other cities to join in the commemoration.   The tradition had already begun to sink roots when nationwide strikes for the 8-hour day launched on May 1, 1886, led to the Haymarket affair, a battle between police and protestors in Chicago that led to the deaths of seven policemen and at least four workers, and to the subsequent arrest, trail, and execution of four radical activists.  Those 1886 strikes and the repression that followed became an international cause célèbre, inspiring the Second International, meeting in Paris in 1889 to designate May 1 as the international workers’ holiday.  But, by then, momentum for a September holiday in the United States was already irresistible:  five states passed laws recognizing the first Monday in September as a holiday to commemorate labor.  Its designation as a national holiday did not come until President Grover Cleveland signed a law in the summer of 1894, and even then the holiday was guaranteed only for federal workers.  But over the next forty years, other workers eventually forced their states and their employers to recognize the holiday.  

Returning to that story reminds us of what a struggle it took to create this holiday, and what difficult circumstances workers and their allies faced in that struggle.  It also suggests the extent to which the circumstances that gave birth to Labor Day parallel in many ways those in which we now find ourselves. 


U.S. workers began Labor Day before they had achieved anything like a real democracy

It would not be overstating the matter to say that U.S. workers began Labor Day before they had achieved anything like a real democracy.  We could scarcely call the America of 1900 a democracy.  African American men and women of all races did not have access to the ballot.  Workers’ ability to exercise their franchise was limited.  Property requirements and poll taxes restricted the vote in many places; and employers dominated working-class voters in others.  In the steel towns of Western Pennsylvania, pioneering sociologist John A. Fitch found that it was not uncommon for mill superintendents to receive voting instructions from New York headquarters and then to dispatch foremen to escort workers to the polls to execute those instructions and for workers to lose their jobs for failing to vote the right way.  In those days, workers’ rights to organize and bargain were unrecognized in law and the courts functioned as adjuncts to employers’ power, issuing rulings and injunctions that repeatedly undercut unions and legislative efforts to reform.  Anti-immigrant sentiment, meanwhile, was on the rise and would soon culminate in stringent immigration restrictions of the Johnson-Reed act of 1924. 

Labor’s fight to turn Labor Day from a national holiday that existed for a small sliver of workers in 1894 into one that was broadly observed also necessitated a struggle to win a real measure of democracy, both in work and politics. In the early 20th century workers articulated that integrated vision in a phrase that became ubiquitous by the time the nation entered the First World War: industrial democracy. That term spoke to their realization that democracy could not be secured in either arena—work or politics—unless it was secured in both. Acting on that realization helped ensure that the process of organizing workers and winning greater political democracy reinforced each other in the half-century between 1918 and 1968.  Workplace organizing thus helped pave the way for women’s enfranchisement in 1920, the postwar Civil Rights struggle, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  At the same time, the expansion of political democracy reinforced the power workers were gaining by unionizing.  


Historical regression? Our democracy recalls that of the America of 1900

Unfortunately, the half century since 1968 has seen that equation break down, as both worker organization and democracy have been constricted--to their mutual detriment.  An employer counteroffensive, a changing economy, and an aging labor law stalled organizing and began steadily eroding union membership.  As unions weakened, a string of judicial decisions from Buckley v. Valeo (1976) to Shelby County v. Holder (2013), have drowned our elections in money, undermined election reforms, gutted the Voting Right Act, and opened the door to renewed voter suppression

Today, our imperiled state of our democracy recalls that of the America of 1900.  Employers increasingly dominate workers’ lives, subjecting them to surveillance on and off the job.  As a condition of their employment workers can now be required to sign “noncompete agreements” that restrict their ability to quit for a better job or be forced to accept arbitration schemes in lieu of their rights under National Labor Relations Act.  Little wonder that, Karen Anderson finds that U.S. workplaces are increasingly becoming dictatorships where “employers don’t merely govern workers; they dominate them.”  And as Alex Hertel-Fernandez reports, employer arm-twisting of the kind that John Fitch documented in 1910 has returned.  Whether they are forced to stand behind a political candidate who visits their workplace for a “photo op,” pushed to write letters to legislators protesting legislation their employers oppose, or urged to vote for the employers’ favored candidates, workers are increasing subjected to the influence of the people who sign their paychecks. Thus we face a situation today not much different from that workers faced when this holiday was created: we need to not only revive our labor weakened union movement, we need to remake our hollowed-out democracy. 

So on Labor Day 2020, amid this swirling crisis, the challenges we face are enormous and daunting—but they are not unprecedented.  And history suggests that the future we will shape in this decade of decision will only be determined in part by the results of the elections that take place in two months.  Whoever prevails, our goal in the decade ahead must be to revive that joint struggle for a voice at work and in politics that drove progress a century ago, to defend the common good, and win that brighter future whose glimmers we see even in this darkly turbulent moment.  


About the author

Joseph A. McCartin is Professor of History and Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor at Georgetown University.  His most recent book is Labor in America, 9th ed., co-written with Melvyn Dubofsky.

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