“Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”— Abraham Lincoln, “First Annual Message to Congress” (December 3, 1861)
To most Americans, the first Monday in September means a three-day weekend and the last hurrah of summer, a final outing at the shore before school begins, a family picnic. The federal Labor Day was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland during his second term in 1894.
This year, Labor Day 2020, is like no other in recent history. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the American economy into a tailspin. With more than 16 million workers unemployed in July 2020, the unemployment rate is 10.2%. The last time it was over 10% was during the Reagan Recession of 1982. Before that, you must go back to the Great Depression for such levels of unemployment.
It is a fitting moment, then, to consider the history of Labor Day. It was born at the end of the nineteenth century, in a time when work was no picnic. As America was moving from farms to factories in the Industrial Age, there was a long, violent, often-deadly struggle for fundamental workers’ rights, a struggle that in many ways was America’s “other civil war.” (From “The Blood and Sweat Behind Labor Day”)
The first American Labor Day is dated to a parade organized by unions in New York City on September 5, 1882, as a celebration of “the strength and spirit of the American worker.” They wanted among, other things, an end to child labor.
In 1861, Lincoln told Congress:
Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation.
Today, in postindustrial America, Abraham Lincoln’s words ring empty. Labor is far from “superior to capital.” Working people and unions have borne the brunt of the great changes in the globalized economy.
But the facts are clear: In the current “gig economy,” the loss of union jobs and the recent failures of labor to organize workers is one key reason for the decline of America’s middle class.
This excellent essay by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explores the vast inequities existing in America’s economy.
Read the full history of Labor Day in this essay: “The Blood and Sweat Behind Labor Day” (2011)