With every passing year, Labor Days becomes increasingly surreal. Labor, as a movement, receives decreasing attention and, to the extent to which Labor Day is acknowledged, it tends to be in the context of work alone.
This may sound strange except when you remember that both the original Labor Day—May 1st—as well as the US-constructed Labor Day (the first Monday of September) was not the celebration of work but the celebration of workers and the workers’ movement. What we are now seeing are presentations regarding work; sometimes about workers; but rarely about struggle.
The fact of the disappearing media coverage of the labor movement (actually the trade union movement) should come as no surprise in light of the crisis of the trade union movement itself. From a highpoint in 1955 of approximately 35% of the non-agricultural/non-domestic workforce, the union movement is now approximately 11% of the workforce. As the movement weakens, so too does the coverage in the mainstream media, as does attention in our education system where we have students emerging who have never heard of labor unions.
Shifting discussions on Labor Day necessitates shifting the trade union movement in a fundamental way so that it actually emerges as part of a labor movement. It actually necessitates a reformation in the most profound of ways. This includes a reassessment of who is in the movement, for example, the recognition of the rise of domestic worker; taxi drivers; contingent workers, etc., and that these groups are part of the new labor movement. It also necessitates the recognition that when the union movement positions itself as the herald of struggles for justice—rather than struggles for specific sets of workers—it is able to capture the imagination of the public, an example of which was the experience of the United Farm Workers of America (illustrated recently in the commercial film Cesar Chavez).
In most cases, however, unions positioning themselves as the advocates for social and economic justice places them in contradiction with the dominant forces in US (and global) society. The leadership of the movement finds this a challenge to the assumptions upon which the US union movement placed itself during most of the latter half of the 20th century: tri-partism, i.e., unions, business and government working together in some level of partnership. Ironically, even when unions engaged in the most intense of strikes, the ideological orientation or backdrop remained the notion of getting to a position of partnership with capital. Rarely has the union movement challenged the fundamental assumptions of capital when it comes to production and consumption, yet that is precisely what should be on our agenda at this moment.
For the union movement to reemerge as a significant player in a broader labor movement it should now be clear that this will necessitate more than organizing and recruiting workers. The experiments with union renewal in the 1990s and early 2000s should have awaken us to the reality that placing new wine in old bottles is not a recipe for growth and change. At the end of the day, it simply does not work. When the union movement has had a mass following, within the working class and more broadly, it has represented something new and different. There was energy in the movement as well as a sense of a broader purpose. People wanted to be associated with the union movement, irrespective of whether they could or would join an individual union.
Herein lies the challenge as we confront the reality of Labor Day 2014. A holiday that, when celebrated, is not a celebration of struggle and purpose but, instead, treated as simply the final weekend of summer. Rather than a celebration of finality, Labor Day should really be a celebration of vitality. That will only happen when those of us in and around the trade union movement recognize that a re-formed union movement is not only a good idea; it is the only hope to hold off a dystopian future.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a racial justice, labor and global justice writer and activist. He is the author of Solidarity Divided and “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions, both addressing the challenges of the US trade union movement. You can follow him on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.