Labor Day is popularly recognized as the end of summer, the beginning of fall, the start of the school year, and in some years the dawn of campaign season. A day for picnics, barbecues and final trips to local pools or swimming holes. A milestone signaling that cooler temperatures and shorter days are fast approaching.
Few are aware that a unanimous Congress and President Grover Cleveland created Labor Day just six days after 30 workers were killed and 57 workers were injured in the government’s violent suppression of The Pullman Strike of 1894. Despite revulsion toward the violence that broke that strike, it would be decades more before government began to minimally protect workers’ basic rights, including the right to organize unions.
American workers began unionizing in the mid-19th century to secure livable working conditions, fair compensation, and relief from employers’ dictatorial control over their lives. Despite violent responses from industry and government, generations persisted in unionizing, creating our modern conception of employment and with it the modern American Middle Class. Unionization transformed laborers working long hours for subsistence pay into consumers with leisure time and disposable income; it elevated a dispossessed and alienated working class into America’s empowered, civically-engaged Middle Class.
Conservatives have long been hostile toward and blind to unionization’s essential benefits. In recent decades Republican-imposed laws have crippled and diminished unionization. Even with unionization at the lowest levels in 85 years, Republicans continue to scapegoat unions for contemporary economic and fiscal woes. They have it exactly backwards. Rather than causing current woes, unionization was a source of earlier bounty.
The dynamics are well-documented. Increased levels of unionization are correlated with increased levels of real income and spending power for all employment segments, not just for union members. Public sector unions play a special role in a state’s economic and fiscal well-being by maintaining a stable middle-income employment base to backstop private sector employment and consumption during economic downturns, while delivering essential public services. Conversely, the decline in unionization is correlated with accelerating income stagnation across all income levels, except for the top few percentiles. The loss of real income, wealth and savings by middle- and lower-income households in turn suppresses consumption and slows economic growth.
Like every human institution, unions possess both positive and negative attributes. But the positives far outweigh the negatives. The experience of other industrialized democracies and America’s own experiences during the post-war period clearly demonstrate that a healthy, broad and deep Middle Class depends upon robust and widespread unionization.
Thus, the term “Labor Day” is somewhat misleading. The day set aside to recognize the Labor Movement might better be called “Middle Class Day,” to remind us all that unionization and worker rights are essential prerequisites for the Middle Class that is both the backbone and guarantor of American greatness.
Wishing you and yours a Happy Middle Class Day.
The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee provides this column.