Labor Day in the USA
September 6th is Labor Day in the United States. The majority of other nations celebrate May 1 as International Worker’s Day, also known as May Day, which commemorates the Haymarket Riots of 1886.
The United States separated its Worker’s Day celebration from the rest of the world in a move to depoliticize the holiday and erase its historical roots and the role of leftist ideologies in the labor movement. Despite this historical erasure, the personal is political and workers’ rights maintains a deep political taproot.
Labor Day was first officially recognized in 1882 in New York, after two local unions organized a parade to celebrate all workers. This tradition was replicated in other states but it took 12 years before President Grover Cleveland’s administration acknowledged it as the “every workingman’s holiday” and the unofficial end of summer in 1894.
Even then, the celebration was considered by many Labor leaders as a performative symbol. The holiday was declared in the aftermath of the Pullman Railway Strike, where Federal troops were deployed to crush the railway workers who were striking, resulting in the deaths of 30 people.
States have forced action at the Federal level before, and the creation of Labor Day follows a pattern of avoidance and performative engagement between the government and disenfranchised populations. Juneteenth was celebrated as Freedom Day for Black Americans in multiple states for years, but it was only in response to the George Floyd/BLM protests in 2020 that the Federal government declared it a National holiday while still failing to enact substantial police reform.
In a similar narrative arc, the decades-long struggle to ratify the ERA has not yet been successful at the National level, although it is currently ratified in 38 states.
Erasure of the Marginalized
The tension between these two ideas is a throughline in both the global and national workers’ rights movements. A worker’s wages aren’t tied to the value (profit) their work generates for employers. The pandemic has brought this issue into focus for frontline workers and independent contractors in the gig economy (Lyft, Uber, etc.) who are underpaid despite being “essential” to society’s functioning.
Ultimately, the value (wages) of an individual worker is determined by many factors, but systemic discrimination and implicit bias of management play a big role. This results in a perpetual uplifting of straight, white, cis men at the exclusion of workers marginalized by this hierarchy.
Impact on LGBTQIA+ Workers
Unsurprisingly, queer and trans workers often face discrimination in regards to multiple aspects of their identity and experience high rates of discrimination in the workplace. If you’re interested in a deep dive into the data on this topic, check out our “Educate Yourself” resources.
The systemic issue of workplace inclusivity requires a diversity of tactics to solve. The last decade has seen a significant shift in the attitudes and priorities of union contract negotiations to protect and advocate for LGBTQIA+ workers. Transgender medical benefits — such as surgery costs, transition-related sick leave, and HRT — are being folded into benefits contracts at unprecedented rates.
This can be leveraged to add pressure on non-union employers to offer these benefits as well. There is also a growing prevalence of LGBT committees in unions, which further expands representation and advocacy efforts for queer workers outside contract benefits.
During our Leadership Conference, our union announced the adoption of an LGBTQ Committee.— IUPAT | Pass the PRO Act! (@GoIUPAT) August 10, 2021
We are fully committed to ending discrimination that divides us and to representing and uplifting everyone who does our skilled trades. pic.twitter.com/syCkCYpJn8
Worker Solidarity on Labor Day
The International Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies”, have long advocated for working class solidarity and the idea that there’s no such thing as “unskilled labor”. The divisions between skilled and unskilled workers are employer-driven fictions perpetuated with the goal of normalizing the exploitation of workers in targeted industries.
Whether you are personally in a union or not, the work of union organizers throughout history has impacted all work environments and established legal protections that exist today. It’s true that intersectional movements are complex, and never complete. There are a million ways to improve the working conditions and lives of workers in all industries, particularly for queer and trans workers who have been historically excluded from many career paths.
This Labor Day is a moment to take a well-deserved day of rest. It is also a day to practice gratitude for those who have walked before us in this struggle.
Tomorrow, our work continues.
If you want to know more about current legislation and Labor movement goals that will have big impacts for queer and transgender workers, check out our blog post on Why The PRO Act Matters for LGBTQ+ Workers.