Robert Caldwell

For many people, Labor Day represents the end of summer, retail sales and barbecue. It is that short pause in your back-to-school schedule every September and the beginning of football season. It might even mean enjoying a rare day with no school or work.

But have you ever taken the time to think about the origins and meaning of the day?

The day honors the contributions working people have made to the United States. In 1894, union leader Eugene V. Debs led a strike at the Pullman railcar company to protest wage cuts at a time when the company refused to reduce rents on company-owned housing, leaving workers with nothing to live on. That strike spread throughout the industry into the first national strike in the United States, and the federal government faced increasing pressure from the companies to help suppress it.

The strike ultimately spread to 27 states and involved more than 150,000 workers. President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops and U.S. Marshals to break the strike, which led to an estimated loss of 26 workers’ lives. Later, the president signed a law making the first Monday in September a workers’ holiday to diffuse growing socialist and anarchist sentiment.

Workers continued organizing throughout the 20th century — including during depressions — to fight for dignity and to claim a bigger piece of the wealth created by their hard work. Workers organizing on the job and at the ballot box won the eight-hour day, the weekend, an end to child labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, breaks at work, overtime pay, minimum wage, social security, wrongful termination laws, the Americans with Disability Act and the Equal Pay Acts of 1963.

Until the 1970s, real hourly wages increased, but since then, real wages have stagnated or declined. Many of the gains of the 20th century started to roll back. As union power has declined, so has the overall standard of living, despite increased opportunities to attend college. And since 2008, things have gotten worse. Occupy Wall Street, a growing movement of the 99 percent against the billionaire class, emerged seemingly out of nowhere. The Fight for $15 movement and demands for rent control in many cities echo the same issues historical strikes did more than 120 years ago. New movements are also emerging on campuses calling for free public higher education and an end to the shackles of student debt.

In our age, unions and other forms of working-class organization are often thought to be a relic of the industrial era, but they are needed now more than ever if the majority of the United States is ever to prosper.

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