Labor Day has historically been a left-wing holiday, with its roots in the 19th and 20th Century labor movements. While Republicans kick-off the summer with Memorial Day, the celebration of workers has long been ceded to the Democrats. However, 2016 marked an epochal shift in America’s political alignments. It’s high time for conservatives to reject their white collar attachments and fully become the party of the working man.
During the late 19th century, industrialization was transforming the American economy. Workers faced dehumanizing working conditions, long hours, low wages, and virtually non-existent safety standards. In response, labor unions began forming to advocate for better conditions and improve the lives of workers. The first Labor Day Parade took place in New York City in September 1882 to celebrate workers’ rights, but it would be some time before the country fully recognized the holiday. (RELATED: ‘Full Of Anger, Violence, Hate’: Biden Goes After ‘MAGA Republicans’ Of Congress During Labor Day Speech)
The pivotal moment came in 1886, in what became known as the Haymarket Affair. On May 1, thousands of workers took to the streets of Chicago to demand 8-hour work days. After days of violent clashes, a bomb went off on May 4 killing police and civilians alike.
The depth of radicalism in the early labor movement is an inconvenient fact for today’s left. Far from the narrative of peace and love that the modern left has written into the history books, dreams of revolutionary communism were alive and well in the capitalist West.
The Haymarket Affair galvanized radicals throughout the West. An international federation of socialist groups declared May 1 International Workers’ Day, in commemoration of the violent backlash in Chicago. The holiday later became synonymous with the Soviet Union’s effort to spark global revolution, and continues to be celebrated throughout the world. Yet sensing the radical direction the labor movement was heading, President Grover Cleveland offered an olive branch. In 1894, he signed legislation to make the first Monday in September a federal holiday for workers — Labor Day.
While communists and socialists continued to be active in the labor movements after the turn of the century, workers had achieved a solid foothold in American society. Revolutions in production and new legislation ensured the working man could achieve a decent standard of living. Communism had little power over a comfortable and politically engaged working class.
In short, the early labor movement created a new social contract. It overthrew abusive norms in order to create a society with a healthier balance between labor and capital. That tradition has reversed itself in the modern era.
The left imagines they continue the legacy of the labor movement in the advocacy of the “marginalized” today. While they cling to the aesthetic of communist militancy, they have abdicated any real responsibility to the working man. Universal income cannot fill the place of dignified work; forgiving student loans benefits the most privileged at the expense of the less fortunate. Soft-on-crime policies impact low income areas the most, while the green revolution imposed from above makes the essentials a lot more expensive for those who can barely get by. Yes, today’s Democratic is a party of decadence — assured in their moral righteousness but insulated from the consequences of their policy preferences.
Across the West, the left has abandoned the working man — and he knows it. Enter Donald Trump and Brexit: two working class juggernauts that defied the expectations of a ruling class that believed it was forever entitled to the votes of the common man. If the history of the labor movement is ushering in the new, then the modern labor movement is about preserving the old, tried and true.
At its core, the America First movement is really just a modern day labor movement. Sure, there is no shortage of bankers, doctors, and lawyers waving MAGA flags — but they are not the locus of momentum. The true power of the movement, its moral weight and foundation, comes from a working class who has gotten the short end of the stick in every policy decision since the end of the Cold War.
Globalization, it was promised, would raise all boats. Open markets, cheap manufacturing, free-flowing capital would benefit the wealthy most, but the working man could get cheaper flat screens at Walmart — so really, it’s a win-win. The value and purpose of work was exported by people who could not understand why having an honest job matters as long as welfare expansion keeps pace with market growth. Who needs a community when we’re all global citizens now, anyway?
Today’s labor movement is not asking for anything radical — merely that we return to the type of social contract that we already know works. Yet it is these notions of dignity and patriotism — utterly uncontroversial until a few short years ago — that the modern left fears the most. (RELATED: Air Travelers Face Massive Delays Over Labor Day Weekend)
Conservatives should not run from the movement Trump created. Some may resist out of their own pretensions, but zombie Reaganism is not enough to keep the Republican party alive for much longer. If for no other reason than self-interest, Republicans should embrace the ethos of Labor Day and proudly reclaim it has a conservative holiday. More than that though, they ought to internalize that message and give voice to the constituency most overlooked by both parties.
Now we can never go back to the 1950s economy, nor should we seek to. But conservative leaders should heed Grover Cleveland’s lesson: when you ignore the genuine concerns of the masses, you risk fomenting the very radicalism you seek to deter. This time around, Americans will need much more than just another day off.