For many Americans, Labor Day is simply a day off from work that marks the ending of summer, celebrated with barbecues and spectator sports. But its purpose is to pay tribute to American workers and their insistence on humane working conditions and fair pay. What cannot be lost in all the revelry is the activist spirit that underpins this holiday. It is a day that honors action and political demands, not calls for national conversations and periods of reflection.
As such, Labor Day this year should resonate especially well with African-Americans fresh off the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In fact, the events that led to Labor Day, fed into the development of the March on Washington.
These historical ties should have special meaning for black America today as it continues to face unacceptably high unemployment rates. The ongoing fast-food workers strike for better wages is also instructive for black America, especially as blacks make up a significant amount of the nation’s low-wage earners.
These past, present, and future links captured in the African-American relationship to Labor Day provide a modern-day timeline of the black worker’s American experience.
How Labor Day was born
Labor Day was nationally established after the Pullman Strike of 1894 when President Grover Cleveland sought to win political points by honoring dissatisfied railroad workers. This strike did not include porters or conductors on trains, but for the black porters, racism fueled part of the workers’ dissatisfaction, and was never addressed.
Pullman porters were black men who worked in the trains’ cars attending to their mostly white passengers, performing such tasks as shining shoes, carrying bags, and janitorial services. During this period, this profession was the largest employer of blacks in the nation and constituted a significant portion of the Pullman company’s workforce, yet blacks were not allowed to join the railroad worker’s union.
Being excluded from the right to even fight for fair work and wages, the Pullman porters formed their own union called the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union, and A. Philip Randolph was its first president. That name should sound familiar: the first planned March on Washington was Randolph’s brainchild. Set to take place in the 1940s, this demonstration was called off weeks before its kick-off date because President Roosevelt met with Randolph and other civil rights leaders in 1941, and signed an order barring racial discrimination in the federal defense industry.
Roosevelt did so to stop the march from happening.
Black porters: Prime movers in labor history
When black workers were excluded from the railroad union, and thus not honored in the creation of Labor Day or the fleshing out of the strike-ending agreement by President Cleveland, they formed their own union.
This directly set the wheels in motion for what would become the 1963 march, the largest political demonstration in American history. A. Philip Randolph was also intimately involved with the planning of the march in ’63, along with the main leader, Bayard Rustin.
Though Labor Day was created at the exclusion of the black worker, it was that lack of recognition that propelled black America to become active and make demands of the government — one of the greatest leaders in labor movement history being spawned by this exclusion in Randolph.
This spirit is still needed today.
Remembering the labor demands of ’63
During the 50th anniversary of the march, many leaders recounted the ten demands made in 1963. Of those ten, half of them were directly related to ensuring living wages, barring racial discrimination in all employment practices, and creating programs to train and place unemployed workers in dignified jobs.
Yet, black employment today remains twice the national average, and has been at this level for decades. Though the national unemployment rate has dropped significantly since the recent recession, black unemployment is still so high, it is as though black America is in a perpetual state of recession. For those blacks that do work, their household income is about 40 percent less than that of whites. And racial discrimination is still prevalent in hiring practices in a number of ways, as evidenced by one study that showed resumés with black-sounding names are 50 percent less likely to receive callbacks.
Even though more of black America is college-educated and more are in high-paying professions, the overall state of the black worker today is in poor shape. Labor Day should be a time when we remember the demands of ’63 and insist that those goals finally be realized.
Labor activism, looking forward
Looking forward, the fast food strikes that will continue through Labor Day are in the same vein of activism as shown by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. These workers are not in a union, but they have come together to demand a living wage — which the national minimum wage of $7.25 is not.
This strike is exactly the sort of activism that Labor Day commemorates as a fundamental American right.
For these reasons, perhaps black America should view Labor Day in much the same way it views Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: as a day on, not a day off. Whereas the King holiday represents a day for the nation to reflect and often provide service to others, Labor Day is the perfect time for black Americans, and all Americans interested in fair hiring practices and living wages, to spend a day in solidarity with workers
Instead of viewing Labor Day as just another day off, perhaps we should view it as a day of symbolic strike in support of those fighting for employment rights, remembering that the fight started in ’63 for jobs and freedom is still ongoing.
For black America, whose enslaved people labored under the harshest and most inhumane conditions imaginable, a proper appreciation for the continuing struggle of workers is the least we can do to honor them on Labor Day.
Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.