Today [Monday, September 3] is Labor Day in the United States, a national holiday established more than a century ago to honor the American worker. Americans typically spend the day away from work, enjoying picnics in the park or visiting the beach or swimming pools on what for many is the last holiday of the summer vacation season.
It's easy to forget that U.S. workers had to literally fight for their rights to a decent wage and improved working conditions and many risked their lives trying to organize.
In 1894, for instance, 34 railway union members were killed when President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to break up a railroad strike outside Chicago, Illinois. Cleveland, who was up for re-election that year, needed to appease angry workers nationwide, so he signed into law a national holiday called Labor Day in honor of the worker.
Gerald Friedman, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says that gaining national recognition was a big morale boost for organized labor. "It does tell us that if you scream, you'll get something. But you have to keep screaming. The louder you scream, the more you get."
But violence against U.S. workers continued in the 20th century. In 1902, 14 coal miners were killed by a mine company's private police force. In 1911, about 150 people, mostly women and children, died in a fire working in a New York City sweatshop; Massachusetts police beat women and children in a textile strike; Colorado mine company guards fired on union supporters with machine guns, killing 19, 12 of them children.
Robert Lerman, a professor of economics at American University in Washington, D.C., says major figures in industry thought they could get away with the violent union-busting tactics, which is why the U.S. government finally intervened on behalf of workers in the 1930s.
"Unions came into play in a big way, especially in the 1930s," says Lerman. "The Congress and President Roosevelt passed liberalizing legislation that made it easier for unions to organize."
Lerman says that the U.S. government encouraged key industries, like steel and automobile manufacturers, not to see unions as a threat, but to bargain with them. The major American unions were, in fact, not radical: they refused to ally themselves with the international socialist movement, which advocated class warfare.
The American University professor says the unions' rejection of radicalism generally got them what they wanted: things like higher salaries, health insurance, and better working conditions.
"What labor leaders wanted was more wages," he notes. "They believed that through organizing they could get the share of the pie they deserved."
Lerman says they didn't want the government running everything, but they did want their support to make working conditions safer and protect things such as the eight-hour day and minimum wage. "They thought they could achieve those through political action and the democratic institutions of the country."
The American labor movement, especially under strong leaders like George Meany and Lane Kirkland, played a significant role not only in bringing progressive change to the American workplace, but in fostering democratic freedoms in other countries.
"AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland (and before him, George Meany) were very influential in a variety of countries in promoting the development of free unions," says Lerman. "They believed in freedom, first and foremost, and a non-communist approach to the world."
Lerman notes that unions played a huge role in the decline of communism. "The Polish unions were very influential in the defeat of Soviet influence in Poland and that led to a lot of other changes in the rest of eastern Europe," he says, adding, "that help was fostered by a cooperative role of American unions and the public sector in government."
But today, labor unions in the United States face a very uncertain future. Membership has declined dramatically in the last 25 years. Unionized workers make up only about 8 percent of the private-sector labor force.
Economics professor Gerald Friedman argues that by rejecting Marxist-style radicalism around the turn of the 20th century, American unions allowed themselves to be manipulated. He says even the establishment of Labor Day was a sign American business and government won out against labor.
"Their strategy has historically been that you make the concession in a way that divides labor, divides the people on the street. So you give them a Labor Day that's separate from the May Day," Friedman says. "Right away, those who want to celebrate May Day are fighting with those who want to celebrate Labor Day. Those who want to think of the labor movement as part of an international struggle for socialism and economic democracy are separated from those who want Labor Day as an American institution. If you don't celebrate that day, you're 'anti-American.' If you do celebrate that day, you're denying the internationalism of labor."
Friedman adds that workers in France, Germany, and other countries where unions engaged in radical activity, today enjoy greater benefits than their American counterparts, such as longer vacations, and a shorter work week. Still, most labor analysts believe that the American unions' tactic of seeking non-violent, gradual change spared the nation class warfare, created a large middle class, and led to the broad-based prosperity that many American workers celebrate on Labor Day.