Labor Day is perhaps the least well-defined celebration among the national holidays.
The first Monday in September became a federal holiday in 1894, but existed in states and localities well before that. A giant parade in New York City in 1882 might have prompted the idea of a mass holiday for workers.
Activists debate which of two competing labor federation officials founded Labor Day. One man’s name is McGuire and the other is Maguire. Go figure.
We lack even a good myth on the subject in the way that, say, baseball has Abner Doubleday as its supposed inventor.
Some of the ill-definition of Labor Day is the fault of our collective memories.
Labor Day is a holiday of, by and for workers in the United States. It is not a day to honor wielders of capital, much as we might occasionally like them, nor is it a nondescript beach holiday.
Labor Day is not just about workers, but about efforts to better working conditions. Left to their own devices, employers who take the low road will take it very low:
• Too many Texans are still making at or near the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a wage that leaves them in rank poverty.
If you work in a tipped job, like restaurant serves, the employer only has to pay you $2.13 an hour and can leave the rest of your livelihood to the kindness of customers.
President Obama has proposed a $10.10-an-hour minimum — still below the $10.75 purchasing power of the 1968 minimum wage, but a start.
A higher minimum wage would be good for retailers and good for taxpayers. Too many Texans can’t afford their products now and would spend almost every extra minimum wage penny that comes in.
• Too many working Texans still have no access to health care because our leaders have decided, based on ideology, not to take $100 billion in federal funds that are available to our state to expand Medicaid.
In effect, Texans are paying through their taxes for health insurance across the nation when they could be receiving it here.
• Too many Texas families have fallen victim to computerized scheduling systems that aim to maximize profits but afford employees little notice of their hours and little empathy for split shifts or quick turnarounds.
• Too many Texans don’t have paid sick days. That’s a public health hazard when workers can’t afford to stay in bed even though they have a contagious disease.
How can workers combat these conditions?
Texas is an “employment at will” state, meaning if you go it alone, you may be fired for any reason (short of illegal discrimination) or no reason.
In the wrong circumstances, you can be fired for being left-handed, being a Cowboys fan, smoking a cigarette at home, singing “God Bless America” in the office, or asking for a raise.
But you cannot be fired legally for joining other workers to seek better working conditions.
Joining other workers doesn’t have to involve unionization, though it helps.
We have seen fast food workers rally around the nation for a $15 an hour minimum wage and we have seen Wal-Mart workers go on brief strikes to improve working conditions. These are brave struggles that will one day bear fruit.
At the top of the list of remedies when employers behave badly, unions empower workers to negotiate a wide variety of contract terms related to your job.
But not everyone has access. If you can’t join a union yet want to join the union movement, Working America, an arm of the AFL-CIO, offers the common purpose of improving working conditions and providing a few benefits as well.
Happy Labor Day!