While most Americans regaled one another with stories of Labor Day road trips and holiday barbecues this week, on Tuesday morning, the 20-odd staffers at Freedom Foundation didn’t have the same long-weekend afterglow.
That’s because Monday wasn’t a day off at the Libertarian-leaning, Washington state–based organization. CEO Tom McCabe took a stance against celebrating American workers’ unions by canceling the holiday. “It would be hypocritical to honor the labor movement with a holiday when we spend the rest of the year working to curb its excesses,” McCabe wrote in a post that went up Friday. Freedom has been pushing for more transparency from Washington’s unions.
“It’s one thing to honor work and workers,” he adds, “but it makes no sense to credit the organized labor movement, which relies on strong-arm tactics, influence-peddling, and corruption to achieve its aims.”
Of course, McCabe isn’t a Grinch—he did give his staffers Friday off and dubbed it Right-to-Work Day. He’s not alone there—plenty of people in the (largely conservative) right-to-work camp have backed antiunion laws, which have been shown to draw industries and jobs from unionized states into states without labor protections. Unionists say that has meant an average of $5,680 less a year in income for workers in right-to-work states.
In part, the Freedom Foundation is anti–Labor Day, Freedom Foundation senior policy analyst Jami Lund says, because today’s unions aren’t worth celebrating. They have become opaque political patrons and are entrenched in the public sector, “which doesn’t have the same history and roots as what we think of when we think about the labor movement,” Lund said Tuesday.
The history and roots of Labor Day may not be front-of-mind for most of us. Labor Day began as a big illicit block party on the Upper West Side of New York City in 1882, according to Linda Stinson, a U.S. Department of Labor historian who wrote a brief history. The event caught on in other states and became a national holiday—probably because it sounded like a blast: an end-of-summer ditch day featuring a beer-fueled picnic and unionist speeches capped by fireworks and dancing at night.
Unions were booming then, and New York workers had joined into an über-collective of 56 unions and 80,000 workers that was dubbed the Central Labor Union. They were the ones who decided they’d earned a day off; the bosses hadn’t authorized the celebration.
“This first commemoration of Labor Day testified to labor’s rising power and unity in the Gilded Age and its sense that both were necessary to withstand the growing power of capital,” The New York Times reported in a 2003 retrospective on the holiday’s origins. In the immediate aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, workers faced down the bottom line against bosses who frequently increased hours for paltry wages, unchecked. Workers needed unions.
Do we need unions today? The well-worn dueling arguments say that stronger labor protections improve life for the American worker—but unions create a costly workforce that hampers business growth. Touché. In recent decades, unions haven’t shown much growth or success in negotiations, according to macroeconomist Dean Baker, who is the codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
“We’ve seen stagnant wages, declining unionization rates, anti-union court rulings, and, for the last six years, mass unemployment, as the labor market is still far from recovering from the collapse of the housing bubble,” Baker wrote in his Labor Day missive this year.
A recent Gallup poll found that the 40-hour workweek is a myth too.
"Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails. In fact, half of all full-time workers indicate they typically work more than 40 hours, and nearly four in 10 say they work at least 50 hours," Gallup found.
It’s not all dour news for labor in 2014. Employees of Boston-based grocery store chain Market Basket rallied to bring a former CEO back after he was fired in a coup because he took good care of his workers, Baker said. Those workers were not part of a union—one unusual example of success.
The further proof that unions are weak in America is in the day-to-day life of American laborers, who are hardly the envy of the world. The next time you’re out at a restaurant for dinner, scan the room—if you can stop staring at your phone long enough to take a gander. Most people will be on their phones, tapping, staring into the bleak white light of their handheld devices. Among American white-collar workers, nearly 40 percent regularly check work email at the dinner table, according to a survey from the Center for Creative Leadership. Sure, some people are just avoiding dinner conversation with those they can hardly tolerate but happen to still live with. Also, Candy Crush addiction is real. (Find me at Level 167, just past the Pastille Pyramid. #notproud.) But the pressure to be an around-the-clock employee on a short electronic leash is also real.
Overseas, the excuse of being leashed to a tyrant boss’ endless email demands won’t fly with friends and family of Daimler employees anymore. The German automaker has gone beyond letting employees set up an “out of office” message. You set up your message to delegate a substitute when you leave town, the inevitable request comes, and the message is forwarded to a staffer to take care of the job for you. What makes it golden? The message is deleted from your inbox so you don’t come back from vacation to find hundreds of unread messages.
Ideas like that stem from Germany’s labor-friendly culture of unions, which is often at odds with American ideas about business, perhaps most starkly in the country’s ongoing disputes with Amazon.
"Every few months for the past year, 400 or more workers have walked off their jobs at two massive Amazon.com warehouses that sit near the geographic center of Germany," The Seattle Times reported last month. In what sounds like an impromptu version of those early Labor Day celebrations in America, the Germans grill bratwurst, listen to performances of union song, and defy the antiunion culture of the Seattle-based dot-com. When asked why they push for the right to form unions, the Amazon workers respond that collective bargaining is as German as, well, bratwurst.
The German worker culture that Daimler embodies is unusual, but other businesses, such as the Toronto office of public relations firm Edelman, are creating a 7-to-7 rule, where employees are “strongly discouraged from emailing one another before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m.,” according to The New York Times.
It probably doesn’t surprise many American workers that Europeans and Canadians have better work lives—the French get 30 days of paid leave a year to the American average of 10. The Spanish take naps in the middle of the day. Canadians have a national health care program. The U.S. isn't even among the top 10 countries in the world when it comes to maternal benefits and support. These are the grumbles of many a U.S. employee, silenced by the idea that we’re lucky to work, lucky to earn.
Part of what irks groups that take antiunion stances, such as Freedom Foundation, is a shift toward public sector unions. Lund argues such monopolistic organizations are not necessary because employers aren’t beholden to stockholders.
“In the public sector, there is not that dynamic of exploitation. It would be different,” said Lund. In a nutshell, he’s saying corporations abuse workers to boost profit margins in a way that public servants such as your local school principal or police officer are safe from.
But Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says he’s been hearing about cruel conditions in state and federal workplaces for years. Part of it is that the agencies have a culture not unlike the Mafia, Ruch told TakePart, where an unquestioning loyalty is expected and rocking the boat is punished. Being in a public sector union doesn’t protect people from a wide variety of abuses at work—but without those unions, the situation could be worse.
“A classic example is in the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Ruch said. His group studied the investigation findings that were released after scandal rocked the department over allegations of long wait times for veterans seeking medical care. Ruch points to the obedient dysfunction of the department as a good example of workplace pressure and loyalty gone awry.
“Doctors and nurses were working under ridiculous workloads that they couldn’t meet and were forced to make up fictions to hide long waits,” Ruch said, adding that “toxic managers” were to blame at the VA, and they’re hardly unique to that agency.
That’s where many Americans—public or private employees—can relate to the plight of the VA worker’s state: browbeaten to the point of giving up one's beliefs, overworked, and underpaid.
Celebrating Labor Day isn’t mandatory. The staffers at Freedom Foundation were among the nearly 40 percent of America’s workers who stayed on the job this Labor Day, according to Bloomberg BNA.
Even when you do get a paid day off, there’s no telling if it’ll be worth celebrating. On Friday, Lund’s Right-to-Work Day, the weather in his corner of the Pacific Northwest was so terrible, all he did was pick up firewood.
“It rained on Friday,” Lund said. “Of course, Monday was sunny.”