John Kretzschmar is the founding director of UNO’s William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies (WBILS)
Labor Day is upon us again. It’s the only national holiday dedicated to the average wage-earner. It became a national holiday in 1894, near the end of the Gilded Age.
Much like today, the Gilded Age was known for its growing economy, exorbitant wealth disparities, hyper-partisanship, strong anti-immigrant sentiment and a growing fear of the influence of corporate money on elections and the making of public policy. In fact, the Gilded Age was known for its “robber barons” and its “huddled masses.”
Today’s economy is, by many measures, also doing great – with growing gross domestic product, the stock market soaring and low unemployment. Today’s economy also brings with it hyper-partisanship, a huge rise in corporate money in politics and strong anti-immigrant sentiment. To quote Yogi Berra, it’s “Déjà vu all over again.”
In both the Gilded Age and today, the one challenge to helping everyday wage-earners achieve the American Dream remains unaddressed … income inequality. Prior to the Gilded Age, President Lincoln importantly noted: “There has never been but one question in all of civilization – how to keep the few men from saying to the many men, ‘You work and earn bread and we will eat it.'”
It remains a challenge today.
The Gilded Age saw wage-earners form labor unions to level the playing field and remove barriers to attaining a piece of the American Dream. The 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed to control greed-driven interference in rigging the economy to favor the “robber barons”. A third party was founded on July 4, 1892, in Omaha, Nebraska. This party was driven by family farmers and ranchers, as well as everyday wage-earners. It burned bright, and several of its platform planks were later adopted by the Democrats.
President William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election. The head of William McKinley’s campaign famously noted in 1895, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Upon President McKinley’s assassination, Teddy Roosevelt became president – meaning that Roosevelt too was a benefactor of big money in politics.
Near the end of his seven-year presidency, Roosevelt supported legislation to limit the kind of corporate largesse that originally got him and McKinley elected. Sadly, with the Supreme Court’s approval back in 2010, corporate dollars are once again flowing into the political arena.
So, as we join with family and friends on Labor Day 2019, it is useful to reflect back on labor’s many contributions to making the American Dream available to everyday wage-earners. Every workplace right and safeguard enjoyed by union and non-union employees were enacted with the help of organized labor, often over the objection of business interests. Why the division? Each and every workplace right and safeguard directly and indirectly adds to the cost of doing business, while at the same time humanizing the modern employment relationship.
Organized labor is a public good. It benefits both wage-earners and businesses. We know that the best friend of Main Street merchants is a well-paid workforce. Please keep that in mind as you think of Labor Day.