When Congress instituted a national Labor Day in 1894, the holiday's purpose was to celebrate American workers and encourage better wages and working conditions. Over the years, workplaces have become safer and wages higher. But this summer's strikes by thousands of fast-food workers demanding better pay illustrates that Labor Day is just as relevant today as it was 120 years ago.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 18,000 Long Islanders work in the fast-food industry. Across the country, most fast-food joints pay the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or slightly above. Those poverty level wages -- around $15,000 a year -- have led to job actions in almost every major U.S. city.
The walkouts are inspired by the lack of real movement on the federal minimum wage in the halls of government, even though a poll by Hart Research in Washington shows that most Americans believe it is time to raise it and index it with inflation. New York legislators have at least voted to raise the state minimum wage to $9 by the end of 2015. But $18,700 a year doesn't go far in our high cost-of-living region.
Who is the driving force behind the rallies and picket lines? Where did the fast-food movement find its inspiration? The answer is organized labor, the folks who brought us the weekend and Labor Day.
Low wages for fast-food workers affect other wages as well. When union leaders bargain for annual raises, employers often compare their employees' wages to the lower nonunion wages in competing industries and job titles. It's difficult to demand a living wage for, say, an entry-level hospital cook when more than 3.4 million American fast-food workers earn minimum wage.
That's why the Service Employees International Union, which represents workers in the health care industry, is a driving force behind the fast-food labor actions.
When fast-food workers walk out and demand that their hourly wages be doubled, they make those demands as a matter of economic survival. They want what organized labor has, and these job actions show they are willing to fight for it instead of just complain about it.
Fast-food workers, in turn, are inspiring union leaders to keep fighting the good fight. Union membership has been on the decline since the 1950s, and less than 12 percent of today's American workforce carries a union card. But the fast-food workers show that we still need unions as long as such a pronounced wage gap exists.
And the walkouts should encourage those in other nonunion professions to watch and learn: If workers flipping burgers can demand a raise and organize a union-style action with their co-workers, so can any worker frustrated with low wages and poor working conditions.
These fast-food fights should be a topic of conversation as burgers are flipped around every family cookout today. Labor Day continues to be a great American holiday that is purposeful and relevant -- just as Congress originally intended.