Somehow, I haven't felt much like celebrating Labor Day these last few years. Consider the history of Labor Day, as told by PBS, back when they still did journalism:
In an attempt to appease the nation's workers, Labor Day is born
The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for some time. In September 1892, union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday. But now, protests against President Cleveland's harsh methods [during the Pullman Strike] made the appeasement of the nation's workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.
1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born. He was not reelected.
The Origins of Labor Day
It was begun by a Democratic President hoping that a basically empty gesture would make up for his unwavering support of the rich against workers. That support for the rich, incidentally, included bloody actions by the U.S. Army and the Marshals Service to break the strike. In Cleveland's case, it didn't work out so well.
Here we are now at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, and it looks like we are seeing history replay, just with a new twist. This is a march by March On Wall Street South, in Charlotte, North Carolina yesterday:
Braving extreme heat, more than 2,500 people from throughout the South and across the U.S. filled the streets of Charlotte on Sun., Sept. 2 for the March on Wall Street South. The demonstration confronted the banks and corporations headquartered in Charlotte that are wreaking havoc on communities throughout the country, and raised a people’s agenda for jobs and justice as the Democratic National Convention convenes here.
Along the march, demonstrators stopped in front of the Bank of America’s world headquarters and Duke Energy’s headquarters. At each stop, people who have been directly impacted by the practices of these banks and corporations –whose homes are being foreclosed on, who have massive amounts of student loan debt, and whose communities are being devastated by coal mining and energy rate hikes — spoke out and exposed these profit gauging institutions.
2,500 march on Wall Street South: We need jobs, housing, justice, not war!
After ignoring the recall race in Wisconsin, and doing nothing on labor's behalf when the Democrats had a huge majority in Congress, President Obama and the Democrats are holding their convention in one of the more notorious "right to work" states in the union, in a convention center they refuse to acknowledge publicly is named after Bank of America.
What's the reaction of labor leaders to all of this? Maybe it's best summed up by AFSCME President Lee Saunders, as quoted by BuzzFeed:
Saunders doesn’t hide his disappointment with the selection of North Carolina as the convention state.
“Charlotte wouldn’t have been our choice as a city,” Saunders told reporters after his Ohio delegation breakfast speech. “It’s in a right to work state, it’s tough to organize down here for private and public sector unions. “
“But we’re beyond that now,” Saunders said. “I mean, it’s over. Charlotte was selected and we’ve got to keep our eyes on the prize and that’s to win in November, and we can’t get caught up in B.S. to be quite honest with you.”
Saunders struck a hopeful note. “We’re going to continue to move forward, we’re going to continue to organize. We’re going to be just fine.”
Labor Brings Its Frustrations To Charlotte
Can you imagine a sharper contrast between this guy and Eugene Debs? Debs went to jail for his cause. Saunders won't even risk punishing Democrats for the obvious snub of holding this convention in North Carolina, and all the past nonsupport on a whole range of issues. Richard Trumka's bright idea of only supporting Democrats who had earned labor's support was still born. Only a few weeks later, he endorsed Obama and pledged to support him. Why? I think it's because that's just too great a risk - if he didn't support Obama, anything that happened regarding government's treatment of labor would be Trumka's fault.
These guys won't even risk their jobs for their cause.
When you get right down to it, what I wrote after the failed Wisconsin recall election is just as true today:
Labor unions have been led by people for quite some time now who are happy to just collect their paychecks and go home. This is a big part of the problem they have, because it's become abundantly clear to anyone who is paying attention that Democrats in general, particularly at the national level, or unsympathetic at best, and hostile at worst, to labor's interests. Yet labor unions have refused to stop acting as though the Democrats are their best buddies in the whole world.
What's worse, when people who run things aren't committed to the interests of their rank and file, it makes it hard to persuade that rank and file to do things that they would otherwise not see as being in their best interests in order to make their collective power greater.
All Over But The Shouting: Wisconsin Recall Edition
This is the reason labor isn't getting what it wants - its leaders won't fight for it, and its rank and file won't demand that they do. Until that changes, we'll be seeing a lot more mournful Labor Days.
Enjoy your Labor Day if you can possibly do it. You deserve it, and things aren't likely to get better any time soon.