For the guy who created Labor Day, Grover Cleveland sure hated unions. 117 years ago, Cleveland made Labor Day a national celebration because his reputation was so bad among American workers. A year earlier, he had sent 12,000 troops in to break up a railroad strike in Illinois, and Labor Day was his token apology to a constituency he hated.
It’s fitting, considering this Labor Day the country isn’t feeling that great about unions either. A Gallup poll this week found the country disapproves of labor unions about as much as it did last year. Which is to say quite a bit. 42 percent disapprove; 52 percent approve — some of the most negative marks for unions since Gallup started measuring these things in the thirties. Only 2009 was worse.
And it’s no wonder, considering that, since last Labor Day, unions have become the cause celebre of governors trying to reduce budget deficits. There was Wisconsin, where Scott Walker stripped public employees of most of their union rights, but only after inspiring state legislators to flee the state and thousands to mount a slumber party in the Capitol. There’s Ohio, where a similar bill to Wisconsin’s was signed into law, but might be repealed in a few months if Ohio voters strike it down through a referendum. And of course there’s Chris Christie across the river, putting an end to collective bargaining for four years and saying “New Jersey has become a model for America.”
So if the point of Labor Day is to remind us that unions exist (along with offering the last chance to wear white/get a tan/wonder what it would be like if we all unionized to have barbecues every Monday afternoon), we’ve rarely needed a Labor Day as little as this one. But if the point is to showcase “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” as it was first envisioned in the 1800s, we’ve rarely needed a Labor Day as much as this one.