This newspaper recorded the events of Labor Day 1904 with unusual enthusiasm, describing a parade of more than 2,000 union members in Bangor as “filled with good-fellowship and triumph … a potent example typified in thousands of silent, stalwart men, of the strength and force and dignity which labor organization brings.”
In particular it admired the keynote address — “admirably clear, concise and forceful … illuminated by shafts of keen, at times almost satirical wit” — delivered by J.F. Sheehan of Massachusetts, who laid the groundwork for the development of unions:
“It is often said that the union men of America are discontented,” Mr. Sheehan said. “If this be so — and I deny it not — then it is a virtue and not a vice. The discontent that urges a man to rise above the lowly station where his lot is cast; that makes more money, better homes, nobler men and truer women; that has shortened the hours of labor and improved the scale of pay; that has given the United States the political liberty and social equality which it enjoys now; and which lastly, the trade unions of the land are going to ferment until it has equalized the scale between employers and employed until the American working man can stand up to all the world and say: ‘I am a man, with a man’s feelings and a man’s rights; I will be the faithful employ of any; but the unconsidered slave of none — this discontent, I say, must be hailed as a glory rather than as a sin!’”
Ever since President Grover Cleveland signed an act making the first Monday in September a legal holiday to honor America’s workers, Labor Day has been a holiday of conflicting themes, an odd mixture of the somber and the frivolous. Even 19th century labor organizer Peter J. McGuire, credited with conceiving Labor Day, admitted the holiday designed to honor work was timed to “come at the most pleasant season of the year, nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and would fill a wide gap in the chronology of legal holidays.”
It is a gap filled with gusto. Americans, whether watching the Labor Day telethon, a worthy event to be sure, or stock car races or baseball or, better still, enjoying the last real summer weekend out-of-doors with family and friends, seem always to enjoy themselves. Where once there were parades, barbecues now rule the day.
Keeping in mind Mr. McGuire’s intent, today also provides the opportunity to assess how far the labor force has progressed, or failed to progress, over the years. The trend is not encouraging.
Unions in the 2000s continue to limp along after strikes in the 1990s, such as at United Parcel Service, General Motors, Northwest Airlines and the Communication Workers of America. The turn of the century brought an acceleration in plant closings, layoffs and formerly good jobs being shipped overseas to become bad jobs.
One semibright spot: Median household incomes rose an average of $665 in 2007. However, median incomes for working-age households were $1,100 below their level in the recession year of 2001 — and $2,000 below 2000 when the previous economic expansion peaked. At the same time, the percentage of Americans without health insurance remains much too high.
The connection between organized labor and wages generally was made clear a couple of years ago in the annual report “The State of Working America” by Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein and Sylvia Allegretto of the Economic Policy Institute. They measured the decline of labor from about one-fourth of the working population a generation ago to about one-eighth by 2004.
Their conclusion is worth recalling today: “This falling rate of unionization has lowered wages, not only because some workers no longer receive the higher union wage, but also because there is less pressure on non-union employers to raise wages,” they wrote. The gap in wages and benefits between union nonunion and union then was $30.76 an hour versus $18.11.
Overcoming nearly stagnant wages will take a lot more than the festivities planned for today, but helping workers to the fruits of their labors has never been a picnic.