Jonny Paycheck participates in a bookbinders strike, 1977.
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When Labor Day Meant Something

Remembering the radical past of a day now devoted to picnics and back-to-school sales.
Labor Day online specials at Walmart this year “celebrate hard work with big savings.” For brick-and-mortar shoppers near my home in Chicago, several Walmart stores are open all 24 hours of Labor Day. Remember, this is a company so famously anti-union that it shut down a Canadian store rather than countenance the union its workers had just voted in. The fact that Walmart “celebrates” Labor Day should draw laughter, derision, or at least a few eye-rolls.

But it doesn’t—or at least not many. Somewhere along the line, Labor Day lost its meaning. Today the holiday stands for little more than the end of summer and the start of school, weekend-long sales, and maybe a barbecue or parade. It is no longer political. Many politicians and commentators do their best to avoid any mention of organized labor when observing the holiday, maybe giving an obligatory nod to that abstract entity, “the American Worker.”

Labor Day, though, was meant to honor not just the individual worker, but what workers accomplish together through activism and organizing. Indeed, Labor Day in the 1880s, its first decade, was in many cities more like a general strike—often with the waving red flag of socialism and radical speakers critiquing capitalism—than a leisurely day off. So to really talk about this holiday, we have to talk about those-which-must-not-be-named: unions and the labor movement.

The labor movement fought for fair wages and to improve working conditions, as is well known, but it was its political efforts that did nothing less than transform American society. Organized labor was critical in the fight against child labor and for the eight-hour workday and the New Deal, which gave us Social Security and unemployment insurance. Union workers sacrificed in America’s historic production effort in World War II and pushed for Great Society legislation in the 1960s. Michael Patrick, a former local Machinists president from Galesburg, Illinois, where I’ve done research, cites his union’s support for Medicare and the Civil Rights Act, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, as among his local’s proudest moments.
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