But there was another component to that march — jobs. The marchers wanted jobs and those that had them wanted better-paying ones, an issue they framed — and activists are again framing — as “economic justice.”
Two of the driving forces behind that march a half a century ago were unions, the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the powerful United Auto Workers.
That march launched the civil rights movement into the mainstream of American politics; for the civil rights marchers, the greatest growth and triumphs were yet to come, some rather quickly. The landmark Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
For the labor marchers, a rather different history was in store. By 1964, the labor movement was in trouble, even if it didn’t know it. Membership had peaked at 35 percent of the workforce in the 1950s.
By 1964, organized labor was beginning a long, slow slide into irrelevance. By 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of private-sector workers in unions had fallen to 6.9 percent, down from 7.2 percent the year before, the lowest rate for private-sector workers in more than a century, labor historians told the BLS.
The membership of the UAW had fallen from roughly 1.5 million at the time of the march to 380,719 in 2012, which was significant news in the financial press because it was the second straight year the union had actually added members.
Union membership, which stood at 26.7 percent of the workforce in 1973, has fallen to about 13 percent. Among private employers, union membership has become increasingly rare, which surely is reflective of the concurrent and unfortunate decline in the country’s manufacturing base.
The exception is public employees, where union membership remained strong and the strongest unions in the country may well be those representing police and firefighters and the largest of those representing teachers. They remain a strong bloc of voters in many places and with the help of compliant elected officials are able to leverage their interests ahead of the taxpayers’ in many instances.
Maybe the time has come to reaffirm the original purpose of Labor Day: The celebration of American workers and a dedication to improving their lot. A holiday for all labor, not just organized labor.