A Labor Day Message from Shop Steward Ryan Boyd 

There seems to be a lot more confusion about why the United States celebrates Labor Day, as opposed to something like Veteran’s Day. Labor Day, known as “the unofficial end of summer,” doesn’t tell us much about the historical significance of work. 

For many of us, work occupies most of our waking hours. Officially, work is a voluntary transaction in which you agree to provide your labor and an employer agrees to pay a wage. In the United States, this is about as far as one is allowed to think about the work relationship before crossing into “controversial” territory. Mainstream economics explains that this appropriate because of the voluntary nature of the relationship: if there was really something wrong in the workplace, people would be free to quit, and the employer would bear the consequences. Although there have been competing models of work throughout US history, the one that ultimately prevailed is this “freedom-of-contract” idea.

There have always been problems with this theory of freedom. Although the notion is engrained in our minds today, workers who transitioned from farming or craft work in the 1800s to manufacturing in large cities were not persuaded that agreeing to work for someone else was the end of the story. For example, by the mid-1800s there were workers who exercised some measure of independence within their craft. There were also workers who had won freedom from enslavement or from indentured status (forced contract) who now expected real freedom in their lives. But none of them would experience this in the newly created industrial system.

Workers in the factories of the 19th century encountered a kind of supervision and control over their every movement that was previously unknown to them. Machinery and technological innovation turned human beings who had perhaps been skilled artisans into “bodies” that might repeat one movement for 17 hours a day. Productivity and profits were free to skyrocket, but the compensation of the worker was locked into whatever they had agreed to in the employment contract. If the worker did not like it, they were “free” to find another job, perhaps with a competing company that used the same practices.

Many early labor conflicts had as much to do with principles of liberty as they had to do with wages or working conditions: why should a person be dependent on anyone else solely in order to live? After all, dependency is the opposite of independence – and isn’t that what the country had fought so hard to achieve from foreign powers? How did it happen that Americans went from independence from Britain to being completely powerless in the workplace? What was the Civil War fought for if it simply meant all workers would be subjected to a new model of surveillance, discipline, and coercion? 

The early industrial labor movement rejected the employer-sanctioned definition of freedom. For them, freedom shouldn’t end when you apply for a job or walk onto the boss’s property. Much of US politics since that time has been a fight over competing definitions of the words “freedom” and “liberty.” The powerful have always used the terms to describe circumstances in which they benefit. The controversy happens when anyone else challenges that definition.  

As things turned out, American workers weren’t powerless. They found ways to challenge the industrial system and reclaim their humanity. In fact, Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, after one of the largest, and most violent, railroad strikes in our history helped push lawmakers to act. But the history of workers’ struggles in this country is not generally known or widely celebrated. So Labor Day has come to mean the end of summer and a reminder that school is starting. Connecting traditional American ideas about freedom and the meaning of work to our modern lives is not encouraged. It would be too controversial.

Still, it's fitting that this Labor Day caps the end of an especially active summer for the union movement –– from the UPS contract fight to the writers’ and actors’ strike, and now the auto workers’ struggle with the big three automakers. American labor is flexing its muscles more than it has in a generation. As we celebrate the end of the season let's hope it's only the beginning of the renewed vigor in the labor movement.