Last week, the United States celebrated “Labor Day”, a federal holiday held every year on the first Monday of September. This year there was a sobering poignancy to the event in a country which has seen the deaths of thousands of health and care workers doing their jobs in the frontline battle against the coronavirus.
In the US, public holidays recognise people, including Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Christopher Columbus and George Washington, and groups, such as workers and veterans, who, in their different ways, have contributed to the success of their country, in war and peace.
The UK is instead content for us to enjoy bank holidays but pays little regard to recognising people or events that have shaped our lives and contributed to national success. Hard to imagine our UK Government or Parliament officially sanctioning a celebration of workers!
But this is what happened in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland, uneasy about the socialist/communist origins of May Day in Europe, signed a Congressional Act into law designating Labor Day a legal holiday in the US. By this time, 30 states in the US were officially celebrating Labor Day. Initially an idea of the labour movement, America recognised the social and economic achievements of American workers and initiated “a yearly national tribute to the contribution workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well being of our country”.
There is some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. Most records show that Peter J McGuire, of Irish parents, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was the author of the idea, suggesting a day to honour those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold”.
The US Department of Labor, in an official tribute to US workers, said “the vital force of labor added materially to the highest standards of living and the greatest production the world has ever known; has brought us closer to the realisation of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy” and “to the creation of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom and leadership – the American Worker”.
The Haymarket Affair – or massacre – which took place in Chicago 1886, had a huge influence on demands for an “International Worker Day” in Europe and Labor Day in the US. Railroad staff, striking for an eight-hour day, were holding a peaceful rally and protest the day after police killed one and injured several other workers. The police acted to disperse the crowd and there was a bomb blast and gunfire, resulting in the death of seven police officers and at least four civilians with dozens of others injured. Eventually, after court proceedings, some were imprisoned, four people were hanged, and the remaining defendants were eventually pardoned.
While the eulogising of “the worker” occupies a place in US public holidays with an official recognition of their worth to America, there are no similar official sentiments, plaudits or much positive support for trade unions or the idea of organised labour in the US.
The Democratic Party values the trade unions and attempts to make it easier for public and private workers to exercise their rights to organise and join unions. At times, relationships are strained. “When workers are strong, America is strong,” say the Democrats, arguing that “united we bargain, divided we beg”. Considerable financial support and election help is provided by the unions.
In his Labor Day message, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, said: “The very idea of unity – of harnessing our collective power – is what helped build our American middle-class, and what continues to fuel our labor movement today.”
Republican party hostility is visceral. This stretches back to the New Deal of Franklin D Roosevelt and the role played by organised Labour in rebuilding America after the Great Depression. Conservative opinion views unions as antithetical to a free market, and instead support private business and do everything possible in Congress and in state legislatures to curb union activity and limit collective bargaining rights under the guise of “right to work” powers. Republicans see unions as a “threat to freedom” in the workplace and in society.
The courts, including the Supreme Court, are often pro-business and resent attempts to interfere with the free market and commercial activity. Corporate friendly and right-leaning courts have consistently ruled that “employment rights” supersede “worker’s rights”.
Public opinion is divided along party lines. But it is worth pointing out that Donald Trump had the best Republican presidential candidate performance within union households since 1984. Despite this, Trump has weakened federal unions, blocked expansion of overtime, undermined pay protections and appointed anti-union justices to the Supreme Court.
Trade unions in America have been in decline over a long period. Their political influence, industrial strength, and bargaining power have been significantly diminished. Recent figures suggest that membership has declined from nearly 40 per cent in the 1950s to less than ten per cent in 2019. Impacted by a significant reduction in the Reagan years of nearly five million workers – mirroring the Thatcher years in the UK – there are now approximately 14 million union members out of a US workforce of 170 million: 6.2 per cent in the private sector and 33 per cent in the public sector.
Not surprising then that the reduction in union membership has been linked to wage stagnation, increasing income inequality, and corporations and billionaires having undue influence on politics, policy making and political opportunities.
Political power has also declined. The Centre for Responsive Ethics, commenting on the 2016 election, said that business outspent the unions 16 to one, $3.4 billion to $213 million. Each year the unions spend $48 million lobbying in Washington, but corporate America spent more than $2.5 billion – more than 50 times as much!
While in America the “worker” is given his or her place in the collective reflections of the nation, even if it is only for a day, trade unions and organised labour are not.
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