It’s not so easy to find a holiday that crosses all religious, racial, ethnic and gender lines. Your political party, favorite color and years of education matter little too. For sure, it’s not easy to find a holiday which most Americans celebrate in similar ways, usually involving a hot dog or two. Yes, Labor Day is a rarity: a holiday we can agree upon.
Congress created Labor Day in 1894 by making the first Monday in September a national holiday. But it only did so in response to the death of 34 striking Pullman workers from the American Railway Union at the hands of U.S. Army soldiers and Marshals.
And then there’s the Labor Day Parade. It’s not held on Labor Day, when so many of us are sad about the summer’s end and trying to get in those last rays of summer sun, a swim at the beach, flipping burgers on the BBQ, or hunting for “Back to School” sales. Instead, the parade is held a week later.
New York City hosted the nation’s first parade by labor—organized by the New York City Central Labor Council—in 1882, when 25,000 took off from their jobs in celebration of workers, and marched from Union Square to City Hall. Through the years, Labor Day and the parade have come to symbolize the long-lasting presence and indestructible power of the labor movement despite the efforts—which today are ever-increasing—to do us in. Currently, union membership is at an all-time low of only 10.7% nationwide (equaling one in 10 workers) as compared with peak years of the mid-1950s when membership was 40% of all American workers (or four out of every 10 workers). New York State leads the nation with the highest percentage of union workers, at roughly 24%. Of that number, nearly 70% are public sector workers, with African-Americans making up the largest component of that group.
At Teamsters Local 237, we understand the value of unity. And our commitment to it is both practical and moral. We know, for example, that non-union workers earn on average 20% less than union members. We know too that the 40-hour work week, health benefits, paid vacation and family leave, and the $15-an-hour minimum wage are just some of the hard fought—and won—battles. We also know that workers’ rights and civil rights are unquestionably intertwined. Let’s not forget that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, when he joined striking sanitation workers—men who made $1.65-an-hour and were treated by their bosses like the garbage they collected. Dr. King believed that: “The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standard of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers.”
It seems that many Americans are starting to agree again. In fact, the approval rating of labor unions has recently increased to 64%, up 16% from 2009, and, not surprisingly, a recent MIT study found that 46% of non-union workers would like to join a union. This increase may have a link to the elusive quest of achieving the “American Dream.” The phrase, coined by historian James Truslow Adams during the Great Depression, symbolizes the desire for a better future that could be obtained in this country through hard work. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his 1933 inaugural address, famously described the challenges of troubling times: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and continued in his speech to emphasize the spiritual qualities underlying the “American Dream” by saying: “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement.”
However it is defined, for some, the “American Dream” remains just a dream; for others, especially many new immigrants, the “Dream” has become a nightmare. In 1997, 72% of Americans thought the “American Dream” was possible. In 2017, and with a new administration in Washington, only 48% still held onto the possibility.
And, here’s where labor unions come in. Just like our role in helping to build the middle class in America, we are both the ramrod and equalizer….and the bridge to the “American Dream.” We fight for the rights of workers while helping to create a level playing field where the “American Dream” is not the sole property of the corporate 1%. We help give everyone a chance. We help give everyone hope.
This is why we marched. We joined our union brothers and sisters in the recent Labor Day Parade to send a strong message to our elected leaders and to the public at-large: “You can bash us. You can try to bust us. We are not going away. We’re labor strong. Be our friend, not our foe. We have a voice and a vote.”