Labor Day’s history is more than just beer and hotdogs

by Leonardo Castaneda

MCT Campus

Labor Day is Christmas in September. You might not always get gifts, but it’s definitely a welcome breather just a week into the semester.Just enough time to realize, yes, you really are back in school.

Labor Day has become one of America’s favorite holidays, and not just because of how early it is in the school year. Because it’s a federal holiday, most employees and students get the day off. And unlike other holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Memorial Day, you don’t have to take a break from your day-off shenanigans to squeeze in some generic gratitude or patriotism. Yep, Labor Day is simply the Feds giving you one last chance to barbecue and do some light-to-heavy drinking before summer is officially through.

But – and here comes the history lesson because you’re back in school – it wasn’t always so. The national holiday was created as a sort of half-baked apology to labor after the U.S. government killed a couple of workers at a strike in Pullman, Ill.

Of course, the idea for a day to honor workers had been around for longer. Traditionally, it was celebrated on May 1.

To this day, Occupy Wall Street types, possible communist subversives and most of the developed and developing world celebrate labor on that day. As with inches and pounds, America chose to do its own thing instead.

America has had a love-hate relationship with organized labor. While they now generally refrain from shooting striking workers, conservatives around the country have taken concerted steps to destroy unions. Wisconsin became the poster child of anti-union legislation after it passed a bill banning collective bargaining for public employees, essentially castrating unions.

That was met with widespread protests from teachers, firefighters, students and everyday citizens. The fight culminated in an unsuccessfulrecall campaign of Gov. Scott Walker and the anti-union spirit quickly spread. A similar bill passed, and was subsequently overturned by voters in Ohio. And mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio has been quoted saying he wants to make San Diego the “Wisconsin of the West.” The way Republicans see it, unions stand in the way of profits by demanding good wages and working conditions for their members. Therefore, they must be eliminated.

To be fair, the history of labor unions has not always been one of brave workers standing in solidarity against the soulless forces of capitalism. I did see Jack Nicholson’s movie about Jimmy Hoffa. I know many union leaders have been rightly accused of profiteering and corruption and at times unions have fought against necessary, if painful, changes.

This doesn’t look quite as bad when we take into consideration the people often bringing up these accusations are politicians, bankers and factory owners – hardly the models of moral rectitude.

In the end, morally just or not, unions are down on hard times. Only 11.3 percent of American salary and waged workers belonged to a trade union last year. That’s down from a peak of 34.8 percent in 1954. But unlike other fads from the ‘50s, such as rock and roll and the hula-hoop, unions continue to serve a vital purpose in our society. They ensure living wages, safe working conditions and reasonable hours for the workers we depend on the most. Teachers, police officers and firefighters count on their unions to fight for their rights so they can perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.

In the past, unions fought hard to win concessions we now take for granted. Basic rights, such as the minimum wage, eight-hour workdays, overtime pay and workers’ compensation, were once demands by union leaders and members.

The battle for workers’ rights is far from won. In the coming years, it might evolve to new forms. Apple’s Foxcomm debacle proved that public shaming could pressure a company into instituting more humane policies toward its employees. But media frenzies and Twitter storms will never replace unions. As long as we have workers, they will band together to protect their rights against corporate interests.

While you’re out enjoying the extra day off, remember that without organized labor, you’d be lucky to even have a regular weekend.