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Opinion Labor Day is a celebration of solidarity — and freedom

Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, advocated making Labor Day a national celebration. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

When we ponder Labor Day, our minds, appropriately, turn to those who do our society’s most punishing work and to the unions they organized to defend their interests. One word the day brings to mind is solidarity.

But the day is only rarely associated with another word, just as important to its purpose: freedom. This is, I think, because most of our discussions of freedom focus on negative liberty, “freedom from,” rather than positive liberty, “freedom to.”

Most Americans instinctively worry about coercion by government and the dangers of an overweening state. This concern can express itself differently across ideological lines, but it spans from left to right.

Yet the freedom to accomplish one’s ends is just as important, and its moral worth was recognized by our nation’s founders when they proclaimed their devotion to not only life and liberty but also “the pursuit of happiness.”

Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor and an advocate of making Labor Day a national celebration, lifted up freedom in a commentary on the holiday in 1910.

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“The struggle of labor,” he declared, “is to free man from his own weakness … from his own unfair, unjust and unnecessarily cruel environments,” and to bring forward “the day of deliverance from absurd economic conditions and cruel burdens.”

In a Labor Day address in 1941, just months before Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt underscored that “one of the first acts of the Axis dictatorships has been to wipe out all the principles and standards which labor had been able to establish for its own preservation and advancement.

“Trade unionism is a forbidden philosophy under these rule-or-ruin dictators,” FDR declared. “For trade unionism demands full freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Trade unionism has helped to give to every one who toils the position of dignity which is his due.”

Freedom as a purpose of organized labor is often downplayed because the dynamism of the economic market is given pride of place in our politics over other forms of liberty.

There is nothing pernicious about markets as such. On the contrary, they are useful devices for the efficient production and allocation of goods and services.

But market freedoms are not the only freedoms, and as Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute argues in his recent book, “Freedom From the Market,” many of the most important advances in personal autonomy have come when certain social and personal goods have been taken out of the market.

Konczal describes many such moments in American history. The legislated 40-hour week increased the time workers had to themselves — a genuine form of liberation. Social Security meant that a decent retirement did not depend solely on how much a lower-paid worker could manage to save and invest from market income. Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare created health security for those unable to afford market-based private health insurance.

All enhanced individual freedom. All grew out of long-standing goals of the labor movement.

Konczal argues that “freedom requires being free from arbitrary power and domination by the will of others.” That can certainly mean freedom from forms of government coercion. But private actors also exercise arbitrary power over others that should be curbed (slavery is the extreme case) and engage in forms of domination that need to be resisted.

Lane Windham, the author of “Knocking on Labor’s Door,” a history of labor organizing in the 1970s, says that’s precisely the point of the union movement: Without countervailing power to the authority of employers, workers have remarkably few, if any, rights in their workplaces.

In an interview, she argued that in the coming debate over President Biden’s Build Back Better program, one focus of the conversation should be on how assisting workers by providing government help for child care and elder care advances “the freedom that comes from security and peace of mind.”

“We continue to rely on women who are in the workplace to take on the task of unpaid child care,” she said. “They need that infrastructure, they need that support, if we want them to work in the economy. We’ve been patching it together for 40 years.”

One of the contributions of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign was his insistence that progressives must no longer cede to the political right rhetorical control over the word and the idea of “freedom.” Noting the role legal recognition of same-sex marriage played in his life as a gay man, he argued that “the chance to live a life of your choosing” is “freedom in its richest sense.”

His point applies to the world of work as well. Labor Day honors the struggles of American workers to live lives of their own choosing with a degree of prosperity and security. No less than July 4, this September day is a celebration of freedom.