The American Labor Movement

Past and Future.

Depiction of the first Labor Day parade.

Let’s start with some Labor Day trivia.

The first Labor Day event was held in 1882. Citizens workers, and labor unions marched in a New York City parade and rally. Afterwards, they gathered for a picnic (next time someone tells you our American holidays mean more than a barbecue, they’re wrong). The subsequent event that solidified this day on our calendars happened some years later.

In 1894, Pullman workers, supported by the American Railway Union and Socialist Party organizers, organized a strike aimed at securing better wages. The strike eventually gave way to riots, an incident that we know as the Pullman Strike. Congressman Lawrence McGann argued for the creation of a Labor Day holiday shortly after the Pullman Strike, writing:

By making one day in each year a public holiday for the benefit of workingmen the equality and dignity of labor is emphasized. Nothing is more important to the public weal than that the nobility of labor be maintained. So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen. . . There can be no substantial objection to making one day in the year a national holiday for the benefit of labor. . . Workingmen should have one day in the year peculiarly their own. Nor will their employers lose anything by it. Workingmen are benefited by a reasonable amount of rest and recreation. Whatever makes a workingman more of a man makes him more useful as a craftsman.

Congress would go on to declare the holiday a few months later.

In many ways, the worker’s movement in the United States was directly correlated to the Industrial Revolution and the advent of modern manufacturing technology. New technology posed societal questions that had never been asked before — questions such as worker safety, and wage stagnation in the face of a changing economy, among others. The American labor movement arose to advocate on behalf of workers when it came to answering these questions. Through organization and mass-negotiation skills, this movement successfully promoted worker’s concerns and successfully negotiated modern working standards that would go on to be mandated by the government.

The face of work has changed significantly over the past hundred-plus years. We are currently in the midst of another industrial revolution — one that is also driven by technology and globalization, but that is underway at a pace never seen before. The effect that these changes will have on our workforce and workplaces are not yet clear. However, what is clear is the labor movement is still necessary in our modern American workplace.

The initial spark that set the labor movement into motion was workplace safety. Unions were essentially working to ensure that their members wouldn’t be injured or killed at work. As time went on, their goals evolved to encompass general quality of life concerns.

In our modern context, workplace safety is no less crucial to a humane and productive work environment; however, we now have greater government oversight and employer accountability to ensure worker safety. The main fight of labor unions in the United States today remains on the standard of living front.

What happens to workers when a company replaces them on a mass scale with machines, or with cheaper labor? What happens when an economy powered by fossil fuels shifts to greener forms of energy? What about workers who have worked for decades and now have to retrain to build technical skills to do their job more efficiently? These are the questions that our modern American labor movement will have to address head-on to ensure that the American worker is ready to meet the challenges that our new world will present her with. These are the difficult and important questions that will dictate the future of our workers in the decades to come.

Further Reading: