This weekend’s celebrations again will prove that Americans can turn any summer holiday into an excuse for grilling out. That’s not exactly a bad thing, either, especially in Kansas City.
But where Memorial Day and July Fourth maintain at least the trappings of their original intent, too many people forget why they have Labor Day off.
The first Labor Day celebration took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882. Historians disagree about who actually came up with the idea, but it arose from local labor unions of the time.
The idea of honoring workers and the organizations that support them quickly spread. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to create a state holiday. Four states followed suit that year, and 23 more, including Kansas, by 1894.
Sensing a trend, Congress that year declared a national holiday, stating, “Nothing is more important to the public weal than that the nobility of labor be maintained. So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as a useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.”
They even gave Americans an excuse for Labor Day barbecues: “The use of national holidays is to emphasize some great event or principle in the minds of the people by giving them a day of rest and recreation, a day of enjoyment, in commemoration of it.”
Yet these days many statistics show it is hard to find much nobility in work — or more specifically, fair wages — for too many Americans.
The national economy has largely recovered since the Great Recession, but the recovery has not reached all workers equally. Instead, income inequality continues to stretch the gap between the haves and the have-nots, though Kansas City is doing better than most.
The national minimum wage was set in 2009 at $7.25 per hour and hasn’t increased despite inflation. A full-time worker earning that much would remain in poverty. Some states are moving toward $15 per hour, but there’s been little movement nationally. Kansas uses the national rate, and Missouri goes with only a modestly higher $7.65.
America’s shameful gender gap on wages persists, too. Even when other factors are taken into account, women too often earn less money compared with men in the same job. Racial gaps are even more pronounced.
Meanwhile, labor unions, the originators of the holiday, have fallen on hard times. Conservative lawmakers in many states pursue laws to limit union influence. In Missouri this year, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed an odious “paycheck protection bill.” The House easily voted to override, but the Senate fell just one vote short.
Union membership nationwide has declined tremendously despite facts showing that unions by and large do a good job securing benefits for their members.
In 2015, only 11 percent of workers were union members compared with 20 percent 30 years ago. The ones in unions earned more — $980 per week last year compared with $776 for non-members. They also are more likely to have paid holidays, retirement accounts, vision and dental care, and other benefits.
On Memorial Day, Americans remember members of the military who gave their lives. On July Fourth, they celebrate the birth of the country.
Today, before you crack open a beer and throw some ribs or hot dogs over the coals, pause for a moment to remember the people who work for America and think about how America can work better for more of them.