It’s just Labor Day as I’m writing this—the unofficial end of summer. In a little while I may head down to Chicago’s River Walk to play a few games of bags with friends and maybe drink a beer or two. But right now I’m thinking about the state of labor in this country and how complicated our notions of labor—what it is and how it’s valued--have become.
When I think “labor” the first thing that comes to mind is the labor movement that had its start at the end of the nineteenth century with trade unions like the Central Labor Union of New York, or labor federations like the American Federation of Labor (which still exists today as the AFL in the AFL-CIO). Those organizations are the reason we have a Labor Day today; their efforts to have a day specifically commemorating labor eventually led to the federal holiday in 1894.
But an extra Monday off is the least of what we owe the organized labor movement. Organized labor gave us the eight-hour workday. The five-day work week. Together with reform-minded politicians like Teddy Roosevelt it put an end to sweatshops and child labor and getting paid in company script that could only be spent at the company store. The percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States peaked in 1954 at almost 35 percent.
After the Second World War things began to change. With the coming of the Cold War, the U.S. was suddenly locked in a global struggle against communism, an ideology that had always, to some degree, informed the labor movement. Then came several high-profile cases of union corruption that gave organized labor a black eye.
But more significant to the decline of the unions was the nation’s transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. At the same time economic factors were moving manufacturing overseas, a generation that had gone to college on the G.I. Bill saw higher education—not the skilled trades—as the path to success and prosperity they wanted their children to take. By 2016 union membership in the private sector had fallen under 7 percent, a level not seen since 1932.
Now maybe the decline in people entering the skilled trades and the decline of organized labor participation are separate events on parallel tracks, but I can’t help but believe that they’re tied together—if only in the public consciousness. I think for a lot of people being, say, a plumber, means you automatically belong to a union hall, that you pay dues and are expected to strike and picket if need be. Does that association somehow affect the appeal of plumbing as a career?
All working Americans owe a lot to the labor movement, and unfortunately we take a lot of the things the movement fought to achieve for granted. The 40-hour work week? Well, that’s just the standard, isn’t it? Safe working conditions? That’s all government regulation, right? A company-sponsored benefits package, including health care? Aren’t those just things companies offer out of the kindness and generosity corporate culture so naturally fosters?
So it’s good to take a day out of the year to appreciate labor, both the movement and the simple thing we have in common with so many of our fellow citizens: that we’re all out there working to make a living.