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Labor Day nameplate by Lorelei Dohm.

Labor Day: More than just a day off

For many students Labor Day is just an extra-long weekend with the potential for a quick family getaway. It serves as the unofficial end of summer, a barrier between the days of wearing white to transitioning into a fall wardrobe. Labor Day, however, used to be a far more meaningful holiday: a celebration of unions and their struggle for increased workers’ rights. In light of a resurgence in efforts to debilitate unions and continuing problems within our labor industry, Americans would be wise to recognize Labor Day as the significant holiday it once was. 

To understand the importance of Labor Day, we must first dig into its roots. 

Historians widely credit union leader Peter J. McGuire for devising Labor Day in 1881 and in 1895 President Grover Cleveland signed it into law as a federal holiday. 

Unlike most federal holidays, Labor Day celebrated a movement that was still in full swing. Through the early 1900s, strikes continued to be prevalent in America as workers fought for increased benefits, which primarily included increased wages and better working conditions. These strikes often turned bloody, such as in St. Louis, when streetcar workers went on a five month strike that resulted in 14 dead and 200 wounded.

Did you know? In no state, metropolitan area, or county in the U.S. can a worker earning the federal or prevailing state minimum wage afford a modest two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent by working a standard 40-hour work week. In only 28 counties out of more than 3,000 counties nationwide can a full-time minimum-wage worker afford a one-bedroom rental home at fair market rent. Source: 2019 National Low Income Housing Coalition Report

To push workers’ goals, new labor unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, commonly nicknamed the “wobblies,” popped up in the United States. Later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal provided a boon to workers in the Great Depression, which had significantly hurt unions due to high levels of unemployment. 

In 1933 Roosevelt signed into law the National Industry Recovery Act, which protected the right of the worker to unionize. Five years later, Roosevelt created the first federal minimum wage, at $0.25 an hour, equivalent to $4.55 today. 

Unfortunately, despite rampant problems within our economy persisting Americans have forgotten about the strife of workers that led to Labor Day’s celebration.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, which releases an annual report on the affordability of America’s housing, paints a dark picture regarding how current minimum wages are insufficient. Although the minimum wage is supposed to be the minimum for workers to support themselves, in no county in the United States can a worker making minimum wage on a standard work week afford a two-bedroom rental home. 

As the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…housing.” Unfortunately, in the 71 years since its writing, rather than improving our labor laws so all US citizens have access to something as fundamental as housing, politicians have let the minimum wage fall behind the rate of inflation and have even gone so far as to cut the legs out from unions. 

Did you know? A full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage needs to work approximately 122 hours per week for all 52 weeks of the year to afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent. Source: 2018 National Low Income Housing Coalition Report 

Right to work laws, although pitched by politicians as a benefit to employees’ freedom, in effect only harm unions and workers. The Economic Policy Institute explains right to work was “originally designed by business groups in the 1940s to reduce union strength and finances, and over the years they’ve been successful.” The article continues to say right to work laws cause a $1,500 annual wage reduction on average. 

Missourians were correct to reject right to work laws in 2018, but we must go one step further. Something as simple as emailing your representatives at the state or federal level can begin to shift the emphasis of our economy back to protecting and providing for American workers. Rather than brushing off Labor Day as a non-consequential holiday, we should remember its true meaning and both celebrate workers and advocate for legislation which alleviates problems for workers that are still persistent in the United States economy.

What are you doing for Labor Day? Let us know in the comments. 

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