“Labor Creates All Wealth”
“Our labor movement has no system to crush. It has nothing to overturn. It purposes to build up, to develop, to rejuvenate humanity.
“It stands for the right. It is the greatest protestant against wrong. It is the defender of the weak.
“Its members make the sacrifices and bear the brunt of battle to obtain more equitable and humane conditions in the everyday lives of all the people.”
—Samuel Gompers , president, American Federation of Labor, “The Significance of Labor Day,” in The New York Times, Sept. 4, 1910
We are delighted to see that, yes, there actually are still parades  on Labor Day. New York City ’s will be Saturday, Sept. 6. New Orleans, on the other hand, is in the throes of Southern Decadence —not quite the same, but, still, a celebration.
A special day to celebrate the worker was first proposed in 1882, and was made a national holiday by Congress in 1894. The first Monday of September was chosen as an appropriate midway point between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving; it would include elements of each holiday: patriotism and gratitude.
The first labor day celebration was proposed by Peter J. McGuire, a leading official of the American Federation of Labor and founder of the carpenters’ union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. (Credit for the idea has also been given to another Maguire, one Matthew Maguire of the Knights of Labor.) In any case, a celebration of labor, including a picnic and speeches and a big parade, was organized for September 5, 1882. It was a great success, with some 10,000 workers parading on Broadway past City Hall and Union Square, carrying signs reading “Labor Creates All Wealth” and “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for Recreation.” (The eight-hour workday was not yet legally protected—and in too many cases it still isn’t.)
Oregon declared the first statewide holiday for Labor Day in 1887, followed by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Thirty-two states had established the holiday by the time President Grover Cleveland signed a bill on June 28, 1894, making Labor Day a national holiday. Cleveland, a Democrat but no friend of labor, had just called out thousands of federal troops to suppress the turbulent Pullman railcar workers’ strike (1894) near Chicago that had paralyzed the nation’s rail system. [See “Behind the Pullman Strike ” in Further Reading below.] Cleveland’s signature, however, did not placate labor, and he was not nominated for reelection in 1896 (the Democratic candidate would be William Jennings Bryan).
How Labor Unions Strengthened America
With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men. —Clarence Darrow 
In the national bestseller Who Stole the American Dream? (2013), Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith explains what labor unions did for the nation’s middle class before a systematic dismantling of the New Deal and Great Society safety net shredded Middle America:
. . . the anchor of middle class-power during the long postwar period and its most consistent and effective advocate was the American labor movement. Union power played a central role in creating the world’s largest middle class by pushing Corporate America to share the economic gains from rising industrial productivity and efficiency with average Americans. Shared labor-management power delivered shared prosperity.
Organized labor’s impact extended far beyond bread-and-butter gains for its own members. The trade union movement fought for and won the eight-hour day, the five-day week, child labor laws, and labor safety laws. Not only did unions bargain with America’s biggest corporations for a better middle-class standard of living, but the AFL-CIO, the labor federation, vigorously supported consumer activists, environmentalists, and the drive to strengthen regulatory agencies. It backed political candidates—mostly Democrats, but some moderate and liberal Republicans, too—who voted in Congress for a more level economic playing field. What’s more, by establishing a social contract and economic benchmarks that many non-union employers felt compelled to match, labor’s tough bargaining with big business gained higher pay levels and better benefits for non-union workers as well as union members.
With strong governmental support during the New Deal period, labor had become a force to be reckoned with during the era of middle-class prosperity. Trade union strength had tripled in size, reaching 35 percent of the private sector workforce by the mid-1950s. By the late 1970s, unionization of public as well as private sector employees had tapered off to 27 percent of the total workforce. But that was still an army of twenty-one million, by far the largest organized body of middle-class Americans. Every big industry—autos, steel, construction, food, trucking, textiles, garment making—had big, muscular unions pressing for a better standard of living for average Americans. (p. 38)
Legislative limitations and rollbacks of union power, beginning with the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) and the Landrum-Griffin Act (1959), shifted into higher gear during the Carter administration (1977–81)—more by Congress than by Jimmy Carter—and into overdrive under Ronald Reagan (1981–89), and continue in the Obama years through the blunt-instrument tactics of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and other Republican governors. Still, in 2011 the median yearly earnings  of union members were $47,684, and of non-union members, $37,284.
“In the past 20 years,” reports Mother Jones , “the US economy has grown nearly 60 percent. This huge increase in productivity is partly due to automation, the internet, and other improvements in efficiency. But it’s also the result of Americans working harder—often without a big boost to their bottom lines. Oh, and meanwhile, corporate profits are up 20 percent. . . . Productivity has surged, but income and wages have stagnated for most Americans. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.” (“Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil ,” Mother Jones, July/August 2011.)
“$15 and a Union”
On a more positive note, a movement to raise the minimum wage, stymied by a paralyzed U.S. Congress, has sparked a push for wage hikes in cities and states around the nation. Seattle recently approved a $15 per hour minimum wage, and San Francisco and Chicago are considering a similar raise.
The CEOs of McDonald’s and Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC, each earn more than $10 million a year—more than twice as much in a day as many of their employees earn in a year.
Fast-food workers, who are often paid from about $7.35 to $8 or $9 per hour—work part-time, irregular hours, often with no benefits—have been campaigning in recent years for a $15 per hour minimum wage. One worker, a single mother in Charleston who earns $7.35 an hour after ten years as a McDonald’s cashier, told a New York Times  reporter, “If we win $15, that would change my life. I get paid so little money that it’s hard to make ends meet, and I’ve had to move back in with my mother.” Mother Jones notes that one year’s earnings at the minimum wage amounts to only $15,080 , while the income required for a single worker to have real economic security would be $30,000 per year.
In November 2012 in New York, 200 workers went on a one-day strike at 60 fast-food restaurants, and in May this year, restaurant workers walked off the job in 150 cities around the U.S. The movement’s motto has become “$15 and a union.” In July, 1,200 fast-food employees, with backing from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), gathered near Chicago for a two-day convention about raising low-wage workers’ pay and fighting income inequality. One of the speakers, the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, told the audience:
“You have to stay in the $15 fight until it is a reality. When you raise people’s wages and it raises the standard of living and you increase purchasing power, you actually not only do the right thing morally, but you do the right thing economically, and the whole country is blessed.”
The New York Times explains  that SEIU has been trying to unionize the fast food workers, and has “brought several cases before the National Labor Relations Board, asking its general counsel to declare McDonald’s a joint employer of the restaurants run by its franchisees. If the labor board agrees, that would open the door for the S.E.I.U. to try to unionize not just three or five McDonald’s at a time, but dozens and perhaps hundreds.”
In this midterm congressional election year we want to see Democrats standing with the low-wage workers. And, even more, we want to see them standing with the workers after the election.
“A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned—this is the sum of good government.” —Thomas Jefferson
“Splendid as has been the progress in organization and federation within the recent past, yet there is much to do to convince the yet unorganized workers that their duty to themselves, their wives and children, their fellow-workers, their fellow-men is to organize and help in the great cause. We must win or regain the confidence of the indifferent, negligent, or ignorant non-unionists, to impress on his mind that he who will not stand with his brother for the right is equally responsible with the wrongdoer for any wrong done.” —Samuel Gompers , “The Significance of Labor Day”
Further Reading about Labor Day and the American Worker
History of Labor Day  (U.S. Department of Labor)
The Origins and Traditions of Labor Day  (What So Proudly We Hail)
The Meaning of Labor Day  (What So Proudly We Hail)
Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil  (Mother Jones, July/August 2011)
The Truth About the 40-Hour Workweek: It’s Actually 47 Hours Long  (Think Progress)
Jefferson R. Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class  (2010)
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America  (2001)
Steven Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker  (2009)
Simon Head, The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age  (2005)
George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America  (2013)
David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America  (2004)
First Labor Day 1882 image from U.S. Department of Labor website ; worker with Raise Up for $15 button by Nathan Weber for The New York Times. Bottom flag / 99% image from Occupy Chicago, 2011. • Thanks to Stephen in NYC for suggesting the quotations by Clarence Darrow and Thomas Jefferson.