Labor Day: Lots Of Worker Victories This Summer

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Above: First Labor Day Union Square,  New York

Labor Day is regarded as “the unofficial end of summer” for many Americans, a time for one last cookout party and back-to-school discounts. Its history is all but forgotten but it remains crucial.

The holiday was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, days after members of the United States Army and the United States Marshall Service had killed 30 workers during the Pullman Strike. The legislation was something of an attempt to win hearts and minds: unions were justifiably skeptical of the government and the holiday was seen as a way to win some support. May 1st was floated out, but people already celebrated International Workers’ Day on that day, commemorating the workers killed during the Haymarket Affair. Cleveland thought celebrating Labor Day on May 1st would encourage more protests, strikes and riots. The first Monday of September was selected to avoid further unrest.

This Labor Day is a particularly great opportunity to remember the holiday’s history as 2016 has featured some major victories for workers. With the media, and many Americans, focused on the presidential election it’s possible that they’ve slipped under your radar. Here’s a roundup:

1.) Overtime Pay Was Given to Millions of Additional Workers

In May, the Labor Department announced that it would extend its overtime protections to millions of additional workers by increasing the overtime salary threshold. Formerly, workers who made less than $23,660 were entitled to overtime pay if they worked more than 40 hours. However, the Obama administration doubled the number and brought it up to  $47,476.

An EPI (Economic Policy Institute) study of the legislation demonstrates that the new rules should impact 12.5 million workers. The chart below shows how many workers would be impacted in each state:

2.) A New Rule Will Hold Contractors Who Cheat Workers Accountable

Despite opposition, from the GOP and lobbyists, President Obama implemented the Fair Pay & Safe Workplaces Executive Order, which will punish federal contractors for repeatedly violating worker safety. The new rules will require companies to report previous violations when bidding for new contracts of $500,000 or more. Effectively, this would make it harder for companies that cheat workers to conduct business.

The Obama administration actually issued the order in 2014, but was just finalized by the Labor Department and the Federal Acquisition Regulatory CouncilThe New York Times editorial board has declared that “despite Republican objections”, the new rule is a “big step forward for labor standards.”

Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, released a statement on behalf of the organization regarding the order:

“This is good news for working people and for the entire country. One in five Americans is employed by a federal contractor and this will help protect millions of workers from wage abuse, workplace discrimination, and unsafe working conditions. This measure is a major step forward in ensuring that federal contractors provide fair and safe conditions for their employees. And for businesses that play by the rules, there will be no burden from implementing these new regulations.”

3.) NLRB Ruled That Graduate Students at Private Universities May Unionize 

The National Labor Relations Board just overturned the ruling that denied graduate students collective bargaining rights. The decision was handed down in response to a grad student union bid at Columbia University and it reverses an earlier ruling against a grad student union at Brown University, which had been the law for over a decade.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) released a statementapplauding the decision: “Restoring the rights of graduate workers is a critical step in ensuring that those on the front-lines of teaching and researching at colleges and universities have a voice in improving higher education for all of us.”

Graduate students at Columbia, and other universities, have declared that they’ll continue their union drives. At In These Times, David Moberg writes that the ruling could have important ripple effects:

It could increase the rights and rewards of an important group of often underpaid workers in a growing sector with significant economic importance. Higher education depends increasingly on a vast infrastructure of contingent employees. In many cases, the declining standards for those lower ranks erode standards for tenured faculty. Together with student unions, these potentially newly-organized forces could pressure schools toward a more democratic American education.

Happy Labor Day.

Michael Arria is an associate editor at AlterNet and AlterNet’s labor editorFollow @MichaelArria on Twitter.