By Andy Pallotta
As Labor Day dawns, most working people are focused on where they will take their kids on one last summer trip, what they need for their unofficial-end-of-summer barbecue and how they’ll avoid holiday traffic.
But we often put less thought into what the holiday really means. In 1894, when Labor Day officially became a federal holiday, there was no 40-hour work week. The eight-hour workday was still in many ways a fledgling concept.
These things were pioneered by the labor movement, the same movement that brought you the weekend and the holiday we now celebrate every September.
In an era when movements like Red for Ed – the name adopted by striking teachers across the country – are rejuvenating the ideals that propelled the strong labor movement in the 20th century, it’s particularly important on this Labor Day to remember just how far we’ve come. That’s because the labor movement continues to face threats from anti-worker forces in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case in 2018.
New York State United Teachers remains strong. We gained members in the immediate aftermath of the court’s anti-union decision. But we are not out of the woods yet.
Labor Day reminds us of what we have been able to accomplish together since the days of Samuel Gompers and Lucy Parsons, and later Dolores Huerta and Albert Shanker. Those accomplishments are a window into what we can achieve by sticking together in this post-Janus world.
In Red for Ed’s case, banding together has led to victories not just for educators, but for the children they serve. Similarly, the united support of labor helped win a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave for New Yorkers in recent years, a victory for working men and women, and the loved ones they support.
Just this year, a united front helped win New York farm workers the right to organize and access basic labor protections, changes that will dramatically impact those who work the fields and the barns and their families, so many of them migrants seeking the same economic opportunities we all strive for.
Whatever the next major victory for working people is, it will be achieved not by millions of separate voices calling for changes, but by those voices uniting around a single rallying cry.
We of course should celebrate Labor Day by taking a long-weekend trip, firing up a grill or just laying in a hammock. But we also should take a moment to thank the labor trailblazers who created this day and consider how we will pay it forward for the next generation of working-class Americans.
Andy Pallotta is the president of the New York State United Teachers union.