Labor Day is a hoax. Many of our holidays are hoaxes.
Take Columbus Day, the day white people celebrate discovering something others discovered centuries earlier. Why celebrate President’s Day in a nation that doesn’t respect the office? Then there’s “Martin Luther King-Equality Day,” a holiday unique to Wyoming, created so that Wyoming wouldn’t be the last, but only the 49th state to recognize King’s birthday. To make that palatable to legislators, they tagged it with “Equality Day,” so we could pretend to care about that as well.
Still, no holiday says “cynical” like Labor Day. It was a cynical hoax from the beginning when President Grover Cleveland tossed it, like a bone to a dog, to workers angry that he had sent soldiers to break up a strike against the Pullman Company. His troops killed 30 people. Cleveland figured giving the survivors a holiday in the name of their movement would calm things.
For decades, the labor movement made the best of it. The U.S. Department of Labor website includes a “History of Labor Day” page. It conveniently omits the Grover Cleveland massacre but does say, “The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”
All off that was true in the days of Samuel Gompers, A. Phillip Randolph, Walter Reuther, George Meany, and Caesar Chavez. It was even true in Wyoming when people like Keith Henning and Paul Johnson used their voices to bring “us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy.”
The long trail leading to the demise of the influence of organized labor began in Wyoming, as it did in most states, with the passage of so-called “right-to-work” law. Those laws said that workers could refuse to join a union but the union could not refuse to represent that worker.
When the Wyoming legislature passed a right-to-work law in 1963, the bill was so controversial that Governor Cliff Hansen stationed highway patrolmen and National Guardsmen in the Capitol Building to assure the peace. At the time, labor was one of the strongest political forces in Wyoming. Conservative business and agricultural interests figured they’d kill two birds with one stone. They did.
While setting labor union membership on a path toward a precipitous decline, they also made meaningless the influence of workers on Wyoming elections.
It should be noted that the workers didn’t help themselves. Some might argue they were a part of the anti-union conspiracy. At some point, many of them decided they didn’t want to fight for wages, benefits or workplace safety. They were far more worried about the federal government’s non-existent plot to take away their guns.
We now celebrate Labor Day in the midst of growing income inequality. The weakest link in economic growth is stagnant wages. Pensions, once part of all union negotiated packages, are being reduced or eliminated. Employers blithely drop healthcare and other benefits at will.
American workers are producing more with fewer jobs and no wage rewards. According to AFL-CIO 2013 data, American CEOs earned an average of $11.7 million, 331 times the average worker’s pay. CEO’s use those dollars to buy multiple homes, go on lavish vacations, build a retirement, and send their kids to the best colleges in the United States.
U.S. workers struggle to pay the mortgage on their homes, receive far less vacation time than most workers, and count on social security for retirement, while their children go deep into debt with student loans paying for an education in state and community colleges.
It seems that American workers are okay with that. If they weren’t, perhaps we’d hear about it on Labor Day or maybe even Election Day.