Labor Day is now thought of primarily as the day that marks the end of summer and, in rather rarified society, the last day of the season in which it’s fashionable for women to wear white. So the holiday has come to have an autumnal, a valetudinarian air about it.
Of course it wasn’t that way to begin with. It was established in the heyday of raw capitalism to acknowledge — maybe placate is the more accurate word — workers. It was celebrated with marches, banners, speeches and some great songs. But unions, the backbone of the labor movement, have steadily diminished in membership and power. In the 1960s about a third of all non-agricultural workers were unionized. According to the US Department of Labor, by 1983 only 20.1 percent of wage and salary workers were members of a union. Unions continued to lose members and by last year only 11.9 percent of workers were unionized. In a sense, Labor Day has come to mark the autumn of the labor movement.
Unfortunately, this great Woody Guthrie song is rather more nostalgia than a call to action. But it’s still a great song.