In the United States, the fight for the right to grieve has been prosecuted—haltingly, frustratingly—first and foremost by the labor movement. In the first half of the 20th century, access to paid leave, including bereavement leave, was almost exclusively confined to professional and managerial workers, one of the most glaring markers of the divide between the middle and working classes. As a result, securing paid leave protections became a major objective of the revitalized American union movement that found its footing during the Great Depression and codified its victories in postwar collective bargaining agreements. As an emergency board convened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to monitor the threat of a rail strike observed in 1941, paid vacation was viewed as “a mark of social status and a recognition of the worth and dignity of the ordinary laboring man.”
But even though, by the early 1950s, paid leave was no longer the sole prerogative of the salaried elite, the struggle to expand access remained slow going, especially when it came to bereavement leave. When push came to shove, many postwar union leaders, especially following the purge of communist activists in the late ’40s, proved willing to prioritize improvements to wages and retirement and health care benefits over the fight for expanded freedom from work. On the whole, managers were more amenable to the idea that workers deserved pensions and health insurance in exchange for their hard work than that they deserved to be able to work less. Bereavement leave was further deprioritized within the sphere of paid leave bargaining. Workers expected to lose a loved one only a few times in their career, but they wanted to take a vacation every year, so it was vacation that took precedence if an employer decided to play hardball.
As a result, bereavement leave was an objective that most postwar unions reserved for their second or third contract fight—often unsuccessfully. Only an eighth of major collective bargaining agreements—the vast majority of which covered hourly workers in blue-collar jobs—guaranteed bereavement leave in 1953; by the close of the decade, the figure had risen to one-third. This tally, while an improvement, still paled in comparison to the approximately 85% of companies that provided paid bereavement leave to their white-collar, salaried employees. The gap continued to narrow in subsequent decades, but it has never been closed completely.