In what is believed to be the first celebration of Labor Day, in New York City in 1882 workers paraded and held this banner: "Eight hours for work — eight hours for rest — eight hours for what we will."
The union request was a plea to give workers a life, and it struck a nerve with the public. Twelve years later, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill that made Labor Day the legal holiday we observe again today.
But "observe" may be too strong a word for how most of us view this traditional day of leisure, picnics and, increasingly, shopping. Unions have lost strength and popularity. Chances are, unless you know a teacher, firefighter or police officer, you don't know a union member.
In 1983, 17.7 million U.S. workers belonged to a union, or about one in five workers. By 2009 union membership was down to fewer than one in eight, and another 612,000 union memberships vanished by 2010.
Some of these jobs were outsourced to countries where wages and benefits are much lower. The loss of manufacturing jobs is widely bemoaned, but there shouldn't be any complaint from manufacturing workers about their pay. The federal government reports that hourly manufacturing wages increased 52 percent from 1993 to 2007.
But manufacturing is no longer the core of union support. Government is. Of the 14.7 million union workers in 2010, more than half were public-sector workers. The union membership rate for public-sector workers is 36.2 percent. It's only 6.9 percent in the private sector.
Union membership is low throughout the South. Last year, only 5.6 percent of all Florida workers belonged to a union.
One reason the call for pension reform among public workers is finally gaining traction in Florida and other states is that unionized government workers generally have much better retirement and health-care benefits than the nonunionized private-sector taxpayers who contribute the bulk of the government salaries.
And it's no wonder popular support for unions has declined along with membership. The union battles these days are more about defending generous benefits and raises than about correcting dangerous conditions or restraining exploitive bosses — the 40-year-old federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration polices workplace safety, and many federal rules protect workers' rights.
One big union issue these days is a federal rule that allows a union to win the right to represent a group of employees without an election if it gets enough employees to sign a card asking for an election. Many employers don't see the fairness in that.
Most of us would agree with this statement: "A worker's decision whether or not to participate in a union … is a decision that is best made in private, so that workers are protected from coercion and influence …"
That's not from a union supporter, as the marchers in 1882 might have guessed. It's a statement by the National Restaurant Association.
Unions have an honorable history of improving pay and working conditions for all Americans, but they are also associated with featherbedding, bullying and excessive demands.
Labor Day is time to remember why historic union achievements should command respect. It is also a good time to remember why excessive union ambitions demand restraint.