Labor Day became an official federal holiday in 1894, thanks to President Grover Cleveland. At its core, the day is meant to celebrate the common worker.
But do you hear Labor Day and what comes to your mind? Grilled hot dogs, late summer? Maybe the back to school balances?
“Labor Day should be a time when we all reflect on the critical contributions of workers to this country’s political, economic and cultural development,” said Claudrena Harold, a history professor at the University of Virginia.
Three moments in labor history, in particular, are central to the history of the United States, the modern labor movement, and the workplace today, according to historians and labor scholars.
“As we face the challenges of rising levels of wage and income inequality, dangerous working conditions amidst COVID, there are lessons we can learn from the past,” Harold told NPR.
1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire
The early 1900s were a period of massive industrialization, in which factory work became a common job often done by young immigrant workers, especially women.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York has become the site of one of the deadliest industrial disasters in US history. The tragedy that took place there on March 25, 1911 marked a major turning point in the history of work and helped establish modern-day occupational safety standards.
The factory occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building in Manhattan, where employees worked 12 hours a day for low pay.
Years before the fire, garment workers across the city went on strike to improve working conditions and wages. While many factories have reached a union agreement with workers to improve conditions, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory does not.
On 25 March, at the end of the working day, a fire broke out on the 8th floor. With spare cloth buckets and shirts hanging from the ceiling, the flames quickly spread to the upper floors, trapping workers desperately trying to get out.
But the doors to the stairs were locked, a common practice at the time so that leaders could prevent unauthorized breakages and alleged thefts. The foreman with the keys to open the doors managed to escape, leaving hundreds of others behind.
Workers succumbed to smoke and flames or jumped from the tall windows of the building into the streets below. That day 146 textile workers, 123 women and girls and 23 men died. Most of the victims were recent Italian or Jewish immigrants.
The horror of the fire led to legislation aimed at improving the safety standards of factories in New York. He also helped create a supervisory agency with powers to investigate working conditions. Frances Perkins, who later served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, would lead this agency.
“We are in many ways the beneficiary of this fight,” Harold said of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. “In this time of the COVID pandemic, when so many of the conversations right now focus on wages, working conditions and safety, the Triangle Waist fire and the political struggles that followed, it is an extremely relevant moment to remember. Now”.
1935: The USA approves the “Magna Carta” of labor law
“In the 1930s, what we see is finally a solution to what many labor historians call the labor question: how can our country balance the need for societies with labor democracy?” said Lane Windham, a professor at Georgetown University.
It is during this decade that the country suffers from the Great Depression. Workers are starting to turn to unions and workplace protections to improve their position, Windham said. The decade proved monumental for workers’ rights.
In 1935, Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York began drafting what would become the National Labor Relations Act.
It is known as “the Magna Carta of work,” Harold said.
It guarantees workers the right to organize themselves. The NLRA also establishes the National Labor Relations Board with executive powers to protect the right to organize and unions of certified employees. The law prohibits unfair employment practices such as blacklisting, violating strikes and discriminatory dismissals.
About a year after Roosevelt signed the bill, the organization of the working class in general took off, especially among black, white, Native American and female workers in the south, Harold said. At the end of World War II, more than 12 million workers joined trade unions.
Decades later, the law was amended to include more workers in professional sports and in hospitals and nonprofit nursing homes. But fundamentally, farm laborers and domestic workers – in jobs often done by black and Latino workers – are still excluded from the NLRA and are not allowed to organize for collective bargaining purposes.
Today, trade unions are still trying to expand national labor law with the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the trade union movement’s top legislative priority in this Congress.
1981: Reagan sets fire to striking air traffic controllers
Up until the 1970s, employers seemed to broadly respect NLRA, said Ileen DeVault, a professor of labor history at Cornell University.
“At the time, it was quite unheard of to fire strikers and bring scabs instead,” he said.
That was until the strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) in 1981.
Forty years ago, on August 3, nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers quit their jobs after negotiations with the federal government over pay and working hours proved fruitless.
President Ronald Reagan, himself a former union president, called the strike illegal and threatened to fire any worker who did not return to work within 48 hours.
Reagan carried out his threat two days later when he fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who had not returned to work. It also declared a lifetime ban on the re-employment of strikers by the Federal Aviation Administration.
DeVault says this was one of the most devastating blows to organized labor.
“Once the US president took this step towards his workers, private sector employers started following in his footsteps,” he said. Workers began to fear strike or unionization out of concern for their work.
Decades later, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10.8% of US workers belong to unions. It is about half of what it was in 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available.
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