Labor Day’s traditions and transitions


In which our senior contributor considers the eight-hour day and the three-day weekend that celebrates it, at least for white-collar workers.


The first Monday in September has been the Labor Day federal holiday since 1894, although many states had a labor day before that.

In labor and leftist circles, activists pushed for a May holiday to commemorate working people, but business interests and the government itself resisted a May labor day because of the association with the Haymarket Riots, in which several police officers and civilians were killed and for which several anarchists/socialists were hanged or imprisoned.

Largely because of the Haymarket Affair, the politically correct way to refer to the riot, May 1 has become Labor Day in many socialist and communist countries.

Since the US Labor Day was designated as the first Monday in September, Labor Day became the first of the three-day weekend holidays, at least for those who got Saturday and Sunday off, a small minority of workers, mostly white collar.

Labor Day weekend over time became the symbolic end of summer and the time to put away your white and seersucker clothing, though that standard has been relaxed in recent years.

Art Chance

Organized labor likes to brag that they’re the people who brought you the weekend; they aren’t.   Even today the only unionized employees who routinely get every Saturday and Sunday off are white collar and professional public employees and in the non-union workforce only professionals and some white collar employees can routinely expect every Saturday and Sunday off.

In the 1890s, the standard for labor and trades workers was a work week of six 10-hour days, Monday through Saturday with Sunday off for those operations that weren’t 24/7.  Most “inside” work, retail, office workers, etc. worked eight- or 10-hour days with either five and a half days or six days in the workweek.

Much of the retail industry and some service companies gave a half day off mid-week, usually Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, and then were closed on Sunday.  Much manufacturing, railroading, mining, the most highly unionized sectors in those days ran 24/7 and workers had irregular days off.

In the late 19thCentury the big push from organized labor and their allies on the Left was for the eight-hour day.  A demonstration in support of the eight-hour day is what led to the police shooting of workers at the McCormick farm machinery plant and a protest over that shooting led to a bombing and the Haymarket Riot.

For those who get a weekend, the traditional Saturday and Sunday, it can be attributed first to custom in the professional and managerial classes and second to the 1938 federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).   While the FLSA didn’t formalize labor’s long-held desire for the eight-hour day, it did set the standard of the 40-hour week at straight time pay and “time and a half” for work over 40 hours in a week and an administrative work period, a work week, of seven consecutive days, usually Sunday through the next Saturday.

This led to five eight-hour days with two days off in the work period becoming the standard, though two consecutive days off even today is far from universal.

The real impetus behind the 40-hour week and overtime pay over 40 hours was to get more people employed. Benefits were a very minor part of payroll costs in the 1930s so putting a 50 percent premium on work over 40 hours was to incentivize employers to have more employees rather than work the employees more hours.

Today when putting out a “Help Wanted” sign is akin to putting out a “Please Sue Me” sign. Benefits and taxes can be well over 40 percent, so employers would often prefer to pay the overtime.

Only Alaska and a couple of other states have daily overtime, though the State of Alaska exempts itself from the State’s Wage and Hour Laws and the daily overtime requirement.

Most of the rest of the Fair Labor Standards Act was aimed at the abysmal working conditions in rural areas and particularly in the South and the racially motivated death spiral of wages in the South. Child labor, at least for those under 14, was outlawed altogether except for family businesses and on farms; most agricultural and small retail labor was exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act anyway.

Whenever workers complained of working conditions or a union organizer showed up all the Southern employer had to do was threaten to hire black labor. Then the union organizer couldn’t find anyone who’d talk to him and the workers were told they should be happy with the wages and working conditions they had.

The minimum wage was instituted to stop the downward spiral in wages as southern employers would routinely cut wages and threaten to replace white workers with blacks if the white workers objected. The minimum wage had little if any effect on the more industrialized and unionized north and middle West, but had a significant effect on the agricultural areas of the Country, particularly the South.

Even today agricultural and fishing employers go to great lengths to avoid state and federal wage and hour laws, as do other employers in areas where the economy is dominated by agriculture and fishing.

In Alaska if you process fish in a cannery onshore, you’re subject to Alaska’s draconian wage and hour laws.   Move it 12 miles offshore and you’re subject only to federal wage and hour laws, and many of the employees would be considered agricultural employees and exempt from most federal wage and hour laws. Move the processor outside 200 miles and you aren’t subject to any laws at all.

I spent much of my adult life across bargaining tables and in hearing rooms arguing with unions over wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. The unions, some of them anyway, like to accuse me of being anti-union, but I’m not anti-union in their role of representing employees in matters of wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment.

But I am very anti-union when they assume the role of a Socialist workers’ party with the right to compel political contributions.

I grew up in The South and I’ve seen how employers will behave in a friendly legal environment and with a labor surplus. I wouldn’t want to be an hourly worker non-union, even in Alaska.

Today, much of America’s unskilled and semi-skilled workforce would love to have an 8-hour day rather than the 4- or 6- hour day and two jobs that Obamacare has sentenced them to.

This Labor Day is a good time to think about the deteriorating Alaska workforce and working conditions.   Every time Pomp and Circumstance gets played, Alaska gets dumber. Our best and brightest go Outside to college and the only ones who come back for more than a visit are those with a family situation that they can step into. We are graduating kids who are at best semi-literate and who have zero work skills. Throw in the amount of drug use and we’re producing a workforce that lacks fundamental work habits and skills and because of drug use cannot be employed in any safety sensitive job.

Employers willing to put up with the low-quality workforce can hire at the minimum wage and those with some concern for workers compensation costs can pay a dollar or two more and require drug testing.

You cannot live on the minimum wage or even a dollar or two more anywhere in Alaska except in your parents’ house or piled in with a bunch of others similarly situated in an apartment in a bad part of town.   And, no, the answer isn’t to raise the minimum wage.

At this time of celebrating those who labor, we should be concerned that the labor force participation rate in the US was last so low in the early 1970s before large numbers of women began to enter the workforce. I’ve never looked at Alaska-specific workforce participation rates, but it must be abysmal statewide and disastrous in rural Alaska.

And it isn’t going to get any better unless we take steps to produce a more skilled workforce. If you’re an entry level or low/semi-skill worker, only your personal pride causes you to take the jobs that are available to you in the private sector. If you can’t get an entry-level government job, and the competition is intense, you’re better off on welfare than working two or three lousy jobs to try to support yourself.  Frankly, if you go to college and come out with some general studies/liberal arts degree, you’re still a entry level or low/semi-skilled applicant and they’re a dime a dozen, though the degree might give you a little advantage in getting a government job.

There really isn’t much to celebrate about labor in Alaska unless you are a high-skill worker or have a unionized government job.  The unions, particularly the building trades unions that were once the most powerful force in Alaska politics, have all but abandoned doing anything other than protecting their niche. They should be desperately concerned about their diminishing ability to send a qualified employee when one of the few remaining unionized employers calls the hall.

Young people are trying to enter the workforce with no skills and no clue as to what is expected from an employee.  Just as the University of Alaska has to provide remedial courses before Alaska’s high school graduates can even take college level classes, themselves dumbed down already.

Meanwhile, unions that have apprenticeship programs have to teach their apprentices what work is before they can teach them the actual skills of their trade.

Unions need to do something about it, but so far they seem content with the status quo of a poorly educated workforce. And they’re allied with the teachers’ unions in maintaining that status quo.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon. He only writes for Must Read Alaska when he’s banned from posting on Facebook. Chance coined the phrase “hermaphrodite Administration” to describe a governor who is simultaneously a Republican and a Democrat. This was a grave insult to hermaphrodites, but he has not apologized.