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In America, Labor Day is a lie

Yiddish Signs carried by Socialist Protesters in New York Labor Day Parade (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
Yiddish Signs carried by Socialist Protesters in New York Labor Day Parade (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Labor Day is a day of rest that commemorates years of war. Congress inaugurated the holiday just days after President Grover Cleveland sent 12,000 federal troops to break the Pullman strike. The tactics were bloody; US deputy marshals killed two men and wounded many more.

That was 1894, an election year. Cleveland needed a way to win workers back to his side. He saw an opportunity in a federal holiday honoring workers — as well as organized labor.

"The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for some time," writes PBS NewsHour. "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 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."

Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, said Labor Day would be "the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed."

He did not say it would be a good day for barbecues.

A simple place to start the discussion of rights and wrongs is with Labor Day itself. Labor Day is a federal holiday, which means that federal employees get the day off, and some federally chartered businesses have to give their employees the day off. But there's no guarantee that workers in private businesses will get the day off with pay — Time reports that data collected by Bloomberg BNA shows roughly 40 percent of employers require some employees to come into work on Labor Day.

It's not just Labor Day. The United States is the only developed country in the world that doesn't guarantee workers in private businesses any paid days off at all, as this chart from the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows:

vacation holidays

(CEPR)

This isn't to say that paid vacation days are unknown to American workers. Many, even most, workers get a few each year. Workers with in-demand skills won't accept a job where they can't take a day off now and again. But workers with less bargaining power often have to accept jobs where they don't get paid days off. The result is that the people with the worst jobs are least able to take the occasional vacation.

America is the richest country the world has ever known. We can afford to guarantee workers a few days of paid rest a year.

Further reading: Danielle Kurtzleben rounds up seven charts showing the state of the American labor movement, and Chad Broughton reflects on Labor Day's radical origins.