Labor Day 2012

On Labor Day 2012, the American work force faces persistent high unemployment and a concentration of wealth and economic power not seen since the first Labor Day in 1894. That year, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill, S. 730, introduced in the United States and passed by the 53rd Congress, making Labor Day a legal holiday. In that Gilded Age, America was in the midst of an economic depression, a growing concentration of corporate wealth and power, and suppression of labor unions. Just six day before signing the Labor Day legislation, the President ordered federal troops to end the Pullman Strike between labor unions and railroads protesting deep wage cuts leaving more than 30 workers dead and the strike’s leader, Eugene V. Debs, in jail.

For more on this chapter of American history, see Brooklyn Law Library’s copy of The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America by David Ray Papke (Call #KF223.D435 P37 1999) and In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 (1895) where the Supreme Court upheld the use of contempt proceedings against the leader of the Pullman Strike saying that “it is a lesson which cannot be learned too soon or too thoroughly that under this government . . . no wrong, real or fancied, carries with it legal warrant to invite as a means of redress the cooperation of a mob, with its accompanying acts of violence”). Yet, in those bleak days, American workers had something to celebrate: a broad notion of solidarity that sustained and strengthened the labor movement in years to come, working to build the middle class and strengthen our democracy.

Today, the rate of union membership is under 12 percent, the lowest in more than 70 years. This trend is driven by some employers and state governments. Since 2010, legislatures in dozens of states including Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin have restricted collective bargaining rights, pass so-called “right-to-work” laws, and made it more difficult for unions to collect dues. Anti-labor politicians use the economic downturn to scapegoat workers and their unions, reinforcing the increasing concentration of wealth, reducing the purchasing power needed to revive the economy and denying workers a voice in their workplaces. With the decline of unions and the increased flow corporate money into politics after Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 US 50, (2010), the wealthy have more influence than ever over public policy and legislation even though the Supreme Court equated the electioneering speech conducted by labor unions and corporations

For more on the history of Labor Day, see the US Department of Labor website. Happy Labor Day, everyone!