The True Meaning of Labor Day

August 30, 2018

Holidays are funny. It’s not an exact science, but it seems that the more institutionalized the holiday becomes, the further away it gets from its original purpose. Christmas purists do their best to keep December 25th at least nominally secular, but at this point, it’s basically just a day designed to keep Apples to Apples relevant, the sugar cookie industry lucrative, and TBS in business by way of the Red Ryder BB gun. It may be a lengthy derivative from Christ’s birthday, but the love and familial togetherness at least keeps the old-school Christmas spirit alive.

On the other hand, Thanksgiving has become a parody of itself, and could just be renamed to “Get a mediocre-brand 42” TV from Best Buy for what seems like a really good deal, but considering you didn’t really need the extra TV in the first place, and the time you spent waiting in line for it amounts to an overly expensive and inconvenient experience, it’s really not that great of a bargain after all” Day. And St. Patrick’s Day is so far gone at this point, we’re not entirely sure what its original purpose was. Green beer? The potato famine? Enya? Your guess is as good as ours.

This week brings Labor Day, the now-ironic meaning of which seems to have become, for some reason, that we all get a day off from work. In actuality, it’s meant to celebrate the amazing progress that labor unions across the United States have made since the dawn of industrialization—Labor Day has been an official national holiday since 1894 by preventing capitalist greed from stealing the lives and well-being of its foot soldiers.

In the 21st century, of course, the idea of unionized work is becoming increasingly antiquated and vilified, which makes it feel a little weird to celebrate it.

Just two months ago, there was a pivotal Supreme Court ruling in the Mark Janus vs. AFSCME, Council 31 case that essentially stripped the bargaining power of public-sector labor unions. Without getting into the complicated details, this ruling basically says that employees who opt out of the union are no longer required to pay dues to them. On the surface, this seems like a defensible libertarian stance, but the ruling could erode the financial and political clout that unions have fostered over the past century-plus.

By now you’re probably saying, “Gee, thanks, guys. I was going to play corn hole for 12 hours straight and slowly sip 20+ Hamm’s cans on Monday, but all this talk about the diminishing power of labor unions makes me want to stay inside and sulk about my future in the salt mines.” First of all, salt mines aren’t really a thing anymore. Secondly, while there’s been a fair amount of federal and corporate pushback against unionization, there’s recently been just as much pushback against the pushback—so much so that in some ways, we’re now seeing a renaissance in large-scale labor disputes.

Front and center are teacher’s unions, which this past spring saw massive, statewide protests across the country that in some cases produced legitimate reforms. In February, every public teacher in West Virginia ‘walked out’ for almost three weeks, leading to a subtle but crucial 5% wage increase across the state. This prompted similar protests in Oklahoma, Arizona, and our sweet state of Colorado. Colorado’s protest was a mere two days, but it resulted in a 2% pay increase for the state’s teachers. More importantly, it raised awareness of growing concerns for the support for teachers, educational budgets, and the people we’ve entrusted with educating and protecting our kids. Thanks to the unions that helped organize and negotiate these changes, public educators have renewed—if still incomplete—clout over their professions and their salaries.

These unions are also at least partially responsible for the recent news that certain Colorado school districts are adopting a four-day school week. According to ABC7, part of the incentive for adopting this has to do with keeping educators happy, prepared, and informed. It’s a lot easier for teachers to defend themselves when they feel protected, which is ultimately the core idea behind unionization and why organized labor deserves to be celebrated.

Does this mean you need to be a part of a union to truly empathize with and celebrate Labor Day? Not necessarily, but while politicians and business owners continue to stigmatize unions, it’s more important than ever to consider what unions have done to balance the wants and needs of employers and employees. Some industries are more ripe than others for a strong unionization push, and as new industries pop up and attempt to dictate draconian new terms to the modern workforce (<cough> Amazon <cough>), there will be a greater need for working folks to have a negotiating partner to stand up to the bullies trying to keep them down.

Today this might mean a 5% pay increase; in the future, fair labor practices could mean something closer to a guaranteed pension due to automation, inflation accommodation, or even something like the four-day week we’re seeing now in parts of the Colorado public school system.

Come to think of it, if holidays are losing their intended meaning, and this day off from work is basically just a deadline mulligan and an opportunity take a three-hour mid-day nap, this year you should re-contextualize it as a four-day work week. That speaks more to the real-world negotiation tactics unions are using to keep their employees less stressed, less busy, less burned out—and more productive. In that spirit, have a happy Labor Week, and don’t let The Man get you down.