There’s a Lot to Celebrate This Labor Day: The Summer Has Been Filled with Victories for Workers

Lambert here: Good to see somebody working on the aggregate demand problem…

By Michael Arria, associate editor at AlterNet and AlterNet’s labor editor. Originally published at Alternet.

Labor Day is regarded as “the unofficial end of summer” for many Americans, a time for one last cookout party and back-to-school discounts. Its history is all but forgotten but it remains crucial.

The holiday was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, days after members of the United States Army and the United States Marshall Service had killed 30 workers during the Pullman Strike. The legislation was something of an attempt to win hearts and minds: unions were justifiably skeptical of the government and the holiday was seen as a way to win some support. May 1st was floated out, but people already celebrated International Workers’ Day on that day, commemorating the workers killed during the Haymarket Affair. Cleveland thought celebrating Labor Day on May 1st would encourage more protests, strikes and riots. The first Monday of September was selected to avoid further unrest.

This Labor Day is a particularly great opportunity to remember the holiday’s history as 2016 has featured some major victories for workers. With the media, and many Americans, focused on the presidential election it’s possible that they’ve slipped under your radar. Here’s a roundup:

1.) Overtime Pay Was Given to Millions of Additional Workers

In May, the Labor Department announced that it would extend its overtime protections to millions of additional workers by increasing the overtime salary threshold. Formerly, workers who made less than $23,660 were entitled to overtime pay if they worked more than 40 hours. However, the Obama administration doubled the number and brought it up to  $47,476.

An EPI (Economic Policy Institute) study of the legislation demonstrates that the new rules should impact 12.5 million workers. The chart below shows how many workers would be impacted in each state:

2.) A New Rule Will Hold Contractors Who Cheat Workers Accountable

Despite opposition, from the GOP and lobbyists, President Obama implemented the Fair Pay & Safe Workplaces Executive Order, which will punish federal contractors for repeatedly violating worker safety. The new rules will require companies to report previous violations when bidding for new contracts of $500,000 or more. Effectively, this would make it harder for companies that cheat workers to conduct business.

The Obama administration actually issued the order in 2014, but was just finalized by the Labor Department and the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council. The New York Times editorial board has declared that “despite Republican objections”, the new rule is a “big step forward for labor standards.”

Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, released a statement on behalf of the organization regarding the order: 

“This is good news for working people and for the entire country. One in five Americans is employed by a federal contractor and this will help protect millions of workers from wage abuse, workplace discrimination, and unsafe working conditions. This measure is a major step forward in ensuring that federal contractors provide fair and safe conditions for their employees. And for businesses that play by the rules, there will be no burden from implementing these new regulations.”

3.) NLRB Ruled That Graduate Students at Private Universities May Unionize 

The National Labor Relations Board just overturned the ruling that denied graduate students collective bargaining rights. The decision was handed down in response to a grad student union bid at Columbia University and it reverses an earlier ruling against a grad student union at Brown University, which had been the law for over a decade.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) released a statement applauding the decision: “Restoring the rights of graduate workers is a critical step in ensuring that those on the front-lines of teaching and researching at colleges and universities have a voice in improving higher education for all of us.”

Graduate students at Columbia, and other universities, have declared that they’ll continue their union drives. At In These Times, David Moberg writes that the ruling could have important ripple effects:

It could increase the rights and rewards of an important group of often underpaid workers in a growing sector with significant economic importance. Higher education depends increasingly on a vast infrastructure of contingent employees. In many cases, the declining standards for those lower ranks erode standards for tenured faculty. Together with student unions, these potentially newly-organized forces could pressure schools toward a more democratic American education.

Happy Labor Day.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Free markets and their discontents, Guest Post, Social policy, Social values, The destruction of the middle class on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Russell

    I had read on Twitter that Labor Day was not a legal holiday. I had my whole life believed it was. Thanks.
    When Obama does these great things I can’t understand him & his determination to shove thru the ISDS? That Corporation Court.
    I just don’t understand.

    1. sleepy

      I wonder if a number of those things can’t be effectively repealed through the ISDS, particularly the reporting requirement for federal contracts.

      1. Carla

        ISDS provisions of trade agreements (including not just the T’s, but NAFTA, CAFTA and others) effectively provide the means to world government by multinational corporations. As I understand it, they supersede all national (and therefore all local) laws, and the decisions of the their 3-member arbitration panels are not subject to repeal. This takes care of any pretense of democracy pretty handily.

        1. HBE

          ISDS is great, if it passes my multinational will claim lost future profits from Labor day! Labor day represents lost profits, and that is unconscionable. /S

        2. John Wright

          If I understand correctly, the ISDS provisions do not actually overturn any sovereign law.

          But, the results of the ISDS arbitration panels can make it very expensive to preserve a law that was found to harm the profits of foreign corporation.

          If the law remains enforced, cash will continue to flow from the losing national government to the corporations who won the ISDS suit.

          This feature should allow Obama and crew to maintain that the TTP will NOT overturn any of our laws.

          But Obama might just neglect to state that enforcing some US laws, as a result of the ISDS mechanism, might become very costly for the US taxpayer to keep in force.

          The corporations might prefer the laws to be kept in effect, providing them with a risk free cash stream flowing from the US government

          Some US laws might become an expensive luxury to preserve.

    2. jrs

      What does legal holiday even mean? That government is closed I guess. People work on thanksgiving and xmas (a few percentage of those people have to to keep society functioning of course). I don’t think ANYTHING in overtime laws (assuming they aren’t salaried of course) even requires OT pay for that. Here’s what state of California says (and you can be sure they are following federal laws):

      Hours worked on holidays, Saturdays, and Sundays are treated like hours worked on any other day of the week. California law does not require that an employer provide its employees with paid holidays, that it close its business on any holiday, or that employees be given the day off for any particular holiday.

      Q: Last week I worked eight hours on the 4th of July holiday, which fell on Wednesday. For the whole week I worked 40 hours. When I got my paycheck this week I was paid for 40 hours at my straight time rate. Aren’t I entitled to extra pay, of at least double time, for working on a holiday?

      A. There is nothing in state law that mandates an employer pay an employee a special premium for work performed on holidays, Saturdays, or Sundays, other than the overtime premium required for work in excess of eight hours in a workday or 40 hours in a workweek.

      1. Anon

        Q: Last week I worked eight hours on the 4th of July holiday, which fell on Wednesday. For the whole week I worked 40 hours. When I got my paycheck this week I was paid for 40 hours at my straight time rate. Aren’t I entitled to extra pay, of at least double time, for working on a holiday?

        A. There is nothing in state law that mandates an employer pay an employee a special premium for work performed on holidays, Saturdays, or Sundays, other than the overtime premium required for work in excess of eight hours in a workday or 40 hours in a workweek.

        Interesting. Where I am, if you work on a holiday, you get 4 hours for part-time or 8 for full-time work for the holiday. If you work that day, you get hours worked PLUS the either 4 or 8. I wonder how it is in other states?

  2. Birch

    Labour Day is a statutory holiday in canada; everyone gets paid good overtime over 40h/7 or 8h/day [unless you contract otherwise], and we count paper ballots because it works.

    I swear I read on this site years ago that the digital code of voting machines in the US is proprietary corporate information that shall not be disclosed. That’s the end of the story. Good night.

  3. Steve C

    How do we understand these one-step-forward victories when on the big things the administration is in Wall Street’s pocket? What interests are being appeased? Who pushed for these things and why did they win? Does SEIU have that kind of clout? Does the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights?

    1. SpringTexan

      Nonetheless, every step matters, especially if the labor overtime thing sticks, that will help a LOT of people.

      Sent this link and a couple of graphics and a “happy labor day from a union member” to family and friends (some of whom like unions, but some of whom are anti-union). Good day to bring it up.

      Appreciate the good news!

      1. jrs

        It will help a lot of people who fall into that category and work for above board employers who obey the law etc.. However labor law is also massively disobeyed and not at all adequately enforced so a ton of people who SHOULD be legally protected as they fall in the right category won’t be and these are NOT black market workers by and large, but workers at legal businesses whose employers break labor law. To be more than 1/2 a step forward it would have to have come with beefed up enforcement (since enforcement is so lax).

  4. Left in Wisconsin

    That’s interesting about the origins of Labor Day. I had always heard September was chosen to replace May Day in the minds of American workers, not to supplement it. Not sure who to believe on that one.

    The list of labor gains will continue to be short and slanted toward administrative improvements (not to be slighted) until working people create a new politics. It will happen. But at this point it is unclear when or how.

  5. Ulysses

    It’s important to ask these big questions!

    I liked Warren Heyman and Andrew Tillett-Saks attempt at an answer:

    “Democrats have historically been the grudging partners of the labor movement, the more willing of the two major political parties to make concessions when pressured. Labor has thus often taken a more thoughtful and calculating approach to neoliberal Democrats, recognizing their distinct interests but maneuvering strategically at arm’s length to partner when possible. The AFL-CIO’s decision to wait to endorse Clinton until she defeated Bernie Sanders is an example of this more clear-eyed calculation.

    By contrast, the breakaway caucus unions represent a new way of dealing with these types of politicians, shifting from strategic alliances to sycophantic servitude. In pledging allegiance to Clinton so immediately and so fervently, the four breakaway unions appear to have lost the ability to identify labor’s own interests and enemies.”

    “Sycophantic servitude” seems a tad too polite, IMO.

  6. Toni Gilpin

    These examples are all important, but it should be noted that they are the result of ongoing organizing efforts and not simply “gifts” from the federal government. Stories about labor should put workers front and center, particularly on Labor Day. So let’s highlight those victories for workers achieved through direct struggle and solidarity, as there have been some important ones recently. The Verizon strike was the biggest one, but there have been others as well, like the unionization of Zara employees, and the Postal Workers’ new contract, which beat back a number of concessionary demands.

    1. Ulysses

      Indeed the recent Verizon strike has received far too little attention! We must struggle on all fronts, as workers, or more simply human beings, to overthrow the current kleptocratic regime.

      Chris Hedges may be a glass half-full kinda guy, but I do think he hits the nail on the head with this summary:

      “There is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil or Raytheon. We’ve lost our privacy. We’ve seen, under Obama, an assault against civil liberties that has outstripped what George W. Bush carried out. We’ve seen the executive branch misinterpret the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force Act as giving itself the right to assassinate American citizens, including children. I speak of Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son. We have bailed out the banks, pushed through programs of austerity. This has been a bipartisan effort, because they’ve both been captured by corporate power. We have undergone what John Ralston Saul correctly calls a corporate coup d’état in slow motion, and it’s over.”

      If we confine our efforts to electoral politics we will surely fail to reverse the corporate coup d’état. We need to boycott, organize, strike, and generally raise hell!

  7. human

    Lambert, I know that you are not as cynical as I am (age is likely to remedy that) and yet have hope, but, your definition of “filled with” and mine are dozens apart. I am going outside now to see if my neighbor re-filled my kitchen basket with tomatoes.

    BTW, thanks for helping to keep the pressure on the Overton Window.

Comments are closed.