Labor Day greetings to all those who work, once worked, are looking for work, or would like to work one day. It is through your efforts that others have food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care, products both necessary and superfluous, recreation and much more. (Work goes a long way towards keeping you alive, too!) And on Labor Day, a special shout-out goes to members of North America’s labor unions.
The Labor Day holiday was first proposed and celebrated by trade unionists in the late 1800s. After the bloody Pullman Strike of 1894 – when the United States Army and Marshals Service killed striking workers – Congress voted unanimously to approve the federal holiday and President Grover Cleveland signed the legislation. Neither Cleveland nor Congress were supporters of labor or the Pullman strikers, but they quickly rallied to mollify an angry public by supporting the creation of a national holiday.
So the creation of Labor Day was a bittersweet affair: organized labor and the working-class had become considerably restlessness and increasingly organized during the previous decade, continually battling employers and militias to improve their wages and conditions. In losing the railroad strike, labor won the grudging respect of the nation’s political leaders.
Sadly, organized labor today is almost as tiny a percentage of the workforce as it was 122 years ago, and it is nowhere near as class-conscious or militant. Still, there is much to celebrate on Labor Day 2016. The union advantage for employees is well-known. Although union workers now constitute only 11.1 percent of the workforce, the continued existence of unionized workplaces keeps wages, salaries and benefits from plummeting even lower, which is what employers and the capitalists would like to see.
In Pennsylvania, there were some 800,000 workers represented by unions in 2015, 14.4 percent of the workforce and up from 13.7 percent the year before. Only three states have more union members than Pennsylvania.
Criticisms of labor abound from the left and the right; we (and, we assume, many of our readers) would heartily join in the criticisms and debates raging on the left flank – but not today. Today we celebrate the women and men of labor, whose tenacious existence provide us with hope for better days – days of fairness on the job, economic justice and sanity.
In the days and years to come, organized labor – and entire working class, here in the United States and all over the world – will continue to confront a powerful capitalist class bent on continually restructuring the economy to increase profits, coopting labor and other potential opponents, and (always) deploying just the right amount of repression to keep things running smoothly.
We stand with all members of the working class, and their principled leaders, as we gird ourselves for the struggles to come.
— James Collins