The nation's first Labor Day came after terrible strife between workers and employers. After federal troops sent to Chicago by President Grover Cleveland broke the Pullman strike, an Illinois congressman introduced a Labor Day holiday bill in 1894. It passed both houses unanimously and the president signed it.
Nationwide, 125,000 railroad workers had joined the Pullman boycott. In Northern California, there was more strike-related violence than anywhere else outside Chicago. Troops camped on State Capitol grounds in Sacramento and the city was under martial law for two weeks. In San Francisco, there were riots on the docks.
Today, we take for granted such things as an eight-hour work day, a minimum wage, workplace safety standards, unemployment insurance, health and retirement benefits and more. Back then, workers often worked 10-hour days and 60-hour weeks. There was no extra pay for those hours or protection against being fired for getting sick.
Changes were hard-won by an organized labor movement that realized isolated individuals could not bargain with employers.
We acknowledge and admire that past. But what about today? What is the role of organized labor in this difficult economy?
Peak union membership came in the mid-1950s, when nearly 40 percent of American workers were either union members or were covered under a union contract. In 1945, Eric Johnston, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said: "Labor unions are woven into our economic pattern of American life, and collective bargaining is a part of the democratic process. I say recognize this fact not only with our lips but with our hearts."
That fabric has been deteriorating, however, since the late-1970s; today only 12 percent of workers are represented by unions. In California, it is 18 percent, but most work for government.
Timothy Noah, in "The Great Divergence," has noted the effect of this decline: "Draw one line on a graph charting the decline in union membership, then superimpose a second line charting the decline in middle-class income share and you will find that the two lines are nearly identical."
The middle class has shrunk significantly, from 61 percent of the adult population in 1971 to 51 percent in 2011, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve.
Unions today, particularly public-sector unions, need to go back to first principles. They need to say, and not just to their own members, what they stand for and what their role is in improving working conditions for all workers.
They cannot be content to service existing membership â" getting members more money and benefits. They need to do some soul-searching.
Start by reining in excesses. End the hysteria about raising the retirement age to reflect actual working years and life expectancy â" or asking workers to contribute to their retirement. That is not anti-worker.
And stop proposals like the one this year that said if a firefighter, police officer or prison guard died of heart disease or cancer â" even 40 years after he retired â" a widow or other surviving relative could claim a "work-related" death benefit. Such proposals, and those guaranteeing spiked pensions and other perks that no one else gets â" alienates the public.
Address the generation gap. With membership concentrated in the 40-and-up group, what can unions say to the 20- to 25-year-olds who are unemployed at twice the rate of their parents? Who among them is not angry over working "internships" without pay and being denied benefits if they ever land a paying job.
We are past the riots and violence of late-19th and early-20th century. But we are also far from the post-World War II era of shared prosperity.
American society is at a crossroads in defining a new path for a strong middle class. Unions have a part to play.