Why Labor Looks How It Looks Today

Raphael Alegbeleye/PantherNOW

Hayley Serpa/Staff Writer

Across the United States and its territories, Labor Day is being celebrated and remembered today. Excluding Canada and a few other countries, Labor Day is the only work-related holiday in the world that is celebrated in the month of September instead of the customary month of May. I feel it is important, in a country where employees are not protected by rising prices, to acknowledge the value labor unions have brought to the American workplace. After all, there is no better day than today to explain the long-term effects brought about by labor unions, and how protecting labor unions means protecting your workers.

Labor Day would become an official, federal holiday during the 19th century presidency of Grover Cleveland in his attempt to mend relationships between the government and its people. But before it’s establishment as a recognized holiday, the popular American labor movement of the 1800s would begin to lay the groundwork for the Labor Day we recognize today.  

In 1882, about 10,000 people in New York marched on the City Hall to protest unsafe labor practices. Some of the labor practices being protested were long work hours with no days off, rigorous physical demands, low wages, harsh conditions and child labor.  

The Pullman Strike of 1894 in Chicago would be the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Thousands of angry rail workers led by the American Railway Union would strike and boycott Pullman cars. They managed to completely disrupt the Chicago railway system before President Cleveland would announce an annual Labor Day, the first workingman’s holiday, on the first Monday of September. It was a conciliatory gesture to appease the ever-growing American labor movement and labor unions.

Not only are American labor unions responsible for our legal holiday, but we must also thank them for their hard work in changing the oppressive labor system in place decades before. In addition, they are responsible for the establishment of the standard eight-hour workday, minimum wage and the ending of child labor in the U.S. They had been calling for the reduction of work hours since the 1860s but would finally see the fruits of their labor after the first World War. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Congress ratified a series of reforms known as the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. This act established the five-day work week and the standard eight-hour shift for wage-workers. It is also responsible for setting the minimum wage, youth employment standards and the concept of recording overtime pay. It’s passing would revolutionize the quality of life for laborers from then on. 

The impact of the growing activity in the labor and union movement is also significant in south Florida and its major cities. The Sunshine State is one of the twenty-eight “Right To Work” states. Right To Work laws prohibit employers from forcing union membership on their potential new hires who each have the right to work, hence the term. 

It seems hypocritical of the U.S. to appoint a federal holiday to commemorate the American labor movement… while seemingly forgetting about the average wage earner.

The main issue with these laws is that inside the private sector, labor unions and employers are prohibited from entering into “closed” contracts or shops. “Closed” shop is a common labor movement term that refers to the sole employment of unionized workers for a job. This further weakens and limits the employee benefits workers receive from union membership.   

The heated and controversial debate regarding right-to-work laws continues today. Many people consider the ratification of these laws to be innately “anti-union” and a limitation of employee benefits. Federal law already prohibits compulsory union membership, so what is the need to create another set of laws that reiterate what had already been decided by the federal government and authorities? The main effect of these laws has only been to weaken the influence of unions, thus decreasing employee security, rights and benefits. 

Right-to-Work laws have reduced the power that labor unions have historically always held. Their bargaining chips are slowly being weakened and the effects of this can be seen in the modern-day workplace. Both state and federal minimum wage have remained stagnant in comparison to the inflation rate of the country. In Florida, the state minimum wage has risen only a dime since 2019. Meanwhile, the U.S. inflation rate has continued its steady creep up the global economic web, unabated by the suffering workers inside its own country. 

Personally, it seems hypocritical of the U.S. to appoint a federal holiday to commemorate the American labor movement and support the work of less radical labor unions of years past, while seemingly forgetting about the average wage earner. The increasing amount of unemployment and poverty, especially in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic, further proves how little our government cares about its people. The singular $1,200 stimulus check given to us by the government to tide us over for a six-month pandemic shows the true colors of our nation and president. 

The average workplace environment seen today in the U.S. is thanks to the eruption of labor movements and unions during the late 19th century. As our country gains an increasingly anti-labor stance in politics, the benefits usually protected by labor unions have been diminishing. We must continue to support our workers and unions in order to provide a safe working environment and improve the quality of life for all our U.S. citizens. 

So today, while you are celebrating the day off with your loved ones, think of how much the American labor movement has improved the employment of your friends and family. Then, think of how we can continue to provide these benefits for future generations. Hint: it is by supporting labor unions.


The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community.

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