By Mark Seavy
Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. However, for many Americans the weekend symbolizes the end of summer and is celebrated with parties, parades and athletic events.
But Labor Day is much more complex than that.
While it has been a federal holiday since 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed legislation in the wake of the Pullman Strike, more recently President Biden’s infrastructure plan, whatever funding amount is placed upon it, can be transformative for working people. It will benefit those who work for compensation at or near the minimum-wage level, as well as workers who earn middle-income salaries.
Indeed this Labor Day there is an opportunity to tackle the vexing issues of the modern day: inequity and racial inequality in the workplace, wage disparity between men and women, ensuring job equity for those with disabilities and for older employees, and the creation of a “livable” wage on a state and national level.
Those issues weigh on the country as people get back to work after so many lost their jobs during the pandemic. The way people work was reshaped by the past 18 months so there’s an opportunity to make changes in the workforce and come back stronger.
During the past year, for example, grocery store workers were essential, almost first responders, in keeping shelves stocked. Yet the large grocery chains cut jobs and used independent contractors to deliver food, bypassing those workers that helped keep their doors open during the pandemic. So there is a real need keep a focus on and raise up workers.
In a step toward that goal, some companies begun increasing hourly wages in a nod toward giving workers the respect they deserve. The most direct route to accomplish this is raising the federal minimum hourly wage to $15. Currently there are a patchwork of state laws seeking to accomplish this. At least eight states have passed laws for a gradual increase to $15, a movement that made headway in California and Connecticut with the passing of state laws requiring employers pay that wage by 2023. But there also remain five states without a minimum hourly wage, including Georgia and Wyoming, where the it’s less than the $7.25 an hour required under federal law. Yet $15 isn’t truly a livable wage in many parts of the country. It’s a base and starting point to help change peoples’ lives.
To aid in accomplishing this, nationally there has been an uptick in labor activism. There is the high profile union election at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama, the formation of a so-called minority union at Google, on-going strikes at Oreos and Chips Ahoy! maker Mondelez International’s plants in several states and Warrior Met Coal’s mine in Brookwood, AL and a unionization drive by workers at Starbucks-owned restaurants in the Buffalo, NY area.
The activism hearkens back to the roots of Labor Day during one of American labor’s most dismal chapters. At the height of it during Industrial Revolution in late 1800s, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in scratching out a living in unsafe conditions. And children as young as five or six toiled in mills, factories and mines, earnings that were a fraction of those paid adults.
Similar to the current minimum wage debate, the movement to create Labor Day started in the states beginning with a 10,000-strong parade through lower Manhattan in 1882. The idea of a “workingman’s holiday” caught on at the state level starting with Oregon in 1887, a year after Haymarket Riot in Chicago. By the time President Cleveland signed legislation in 1894 making Labor Day a federal holiday, 21 other states were on board, ushering in a so-called Progressive Era that saw the Democratic Party shift from a focus the Jacksonian commitment to minimal government to one in which the federal government was involved the country’s economic and social life.
And much like then, as we mark Labor Day this year, there’s a genuine opportunity to change and improve workers’ lives.
Mark Seavy is a member of the Ridgefield Zoning Board of Appeals. Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee provides this column.