It’s time to repurpose ‘Labor Day’ as 'Taxpayers’ Day’

A federal holiday at the end of summer was a wonderful idea, a chance for families to shift gears as the children go back to school and for the rest of us to prepare for the shorter days and less friendly weather of winter. And it is even better that this day of leisure was linked to honoring work and those who perform it. The holiday began as an organizing tool for unions:

On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.

When President Cleveland signed Labor Day into law in 1894, industrial workers were the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, and they were facing  7-day work weeks, low pay, and often hazardous working conditions.  Efforts to organize unions to demand better pay and working conditions faced sometimes brutal repression.  The federal holiday was viewed as an attempt to heal the wounds opened by the class conflict between owners and the industrial proletariat that Marxists viewed as an opportunity for revolution.

The holiday didn’t halt the class conflict, nor did it instantly improve pay and working conditions, but it did help give legitimacy to the union movement. Outrages, such as the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, where National Guardsmen and goons employed by the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company fired on an encampment of 1,200 striking workers, made it clear that unions had an important and legitimate role to play in an economy that was still rapidly industrializing:


I have visited the Ludlow Massacre Monument, a slightly forlorn private site maintained by unions. Even though I am rather critical of what the union movement has become, there is no question in my mind that the period or organizing and winning recognition for unions was a very positive contribution to American social and political history.

Photo credit: Beverly and Pack

It took four more decades, and a Depression and New Deal, before unions were able to obtain contracts with the biggest industrial firms in America and dominate industrial production. But the ultimate success of that movement was so great that wages were driven up to the point where the global competitiveness of American industrial firms was impaired in union-dominated industries such as automobile manufacturing. Industrial employment and membership in industrial unions plummeted. In its place, unions organized government workers, after President Nixon signed an executive order that made it legal for them to do so. Today, violence connected to unions is more likely to be from the union side, not the employer's side.

Fast forward to the end of the second decade of the 21st century and the composition of the American workforce has radically changed, and industrial workers now are far outnumbered by “white collar” office workers, including professional and technical, as well as clerical occupations. And unions have withered to the point where they now account for 10 percent of the workforce, less than a third of its peak.

With industrial production no longer the dynamic heart of the American economy, it is time to repurpose the end-of-summer holiday to honor more than a small and declining share of the workforce. Today’s major class distinction is between those who work, earn, and pay taxes and those who don’t work or pay income taxes on the fruits of their labor. Without the tax revenues derived from work, the vast dependent classes would be destitute. Moreover, the taxpaying class is today not sufficiently honored for its sacrifices that support and even enrich others. There is  vast gulf between those who get up and go to work, no matter their personal desire to get extra sleep, have fun, or otherwise please their whims, and those who no work, and are able to structure their time as they please, because they receive a check, or services and facilities courtesy of those who cough up a share of their earnings for the tax man.

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