A version of this editorial first ran in The Daily Star in 2004. It appears again this year in honor of Labor Day.

“Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day ... is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation.”

— Samuel Gompers, American Federation of Labor founder

The phrase “Labor Day” may conjure up images of picnics, hot dogs and beaches — a day of relaxation and, for students, one last day of freedom before going back to school.

But Labor Day once meant more than just barbecues and returning to classes.

Though the actual founder of the American holiday of Labor Day remains subject to debate, it is known that a day was set aside for the celebration of a “workingmen’s holiday” by the Central Labor Union of New York in the late 19th century.

The union picked Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, as the date for its event in New York City and decided to continue the tradition each September. By 1885, other unions around the country had taken up the idea, and in 1894, Labor Day was established as a federal holiday by the U.S. Congress.

Today, few of us will spend Labor Day at a union-sponsored event. Nationally, participation in labor unions continues to decline. According to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate — the percentage of wage and salary workers who are members of unions — was 10.5 percent in 2018, down by 0.2 percentage point

from 2017. In 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent.

Unions have lost a lot of their clout because companies have discovered that they could find cheaper labor first in Southern and Western states and then in foreign countries. 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t honor this holiday’s origins and meaning. And it doesn’t mean that the gains sought by organized labor have all been won.

We should take time to recognize the gains organized labor won for all of us — including the 40-hour work week, the abolition of child labor and the very notion of paid time off for sick leave or vacation. We encourage workers and employers alike to use Labor Day as an opportunity to ensure that workers’ rights are being upheld.

But we must also not forget that workers are still fighting for their rights — including the right to a decent minimum wage, and the right to be paid fairly for the hours that they work. (Abuses of this kind, collectively referred to as wage theft, are estimated to affect 2 million to 3 million Americans.)

We can also celebrate Labor Day by patronizing locally owned businesses. By supporting our neighbors, we can contribute to the success of labor on a local level, keeping jobs close to home and keeping money flowing into the local economy.

The days of the union picnic and labor parade may be behind us. But the struggles of workers are far from settled. Remember that on this Labor Day.

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