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Labor Day is now a key to Election Day for Democrats and Republicans alike

Members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union are seen on a Labor Day parade float, Sept. 4, 1961. While many may associate the holiday with major retail sales and end-of summer barbecues, Labor Day's roots are in worker-driven organizing.
Hans Von Nolde
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AP
Members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union are seen on a Labor Day parade float, Sept. 4, 1961. While many may associate the holiday with major retail sales and end-of summer barbecues, Labor Day's roots are in worker-driven organizing.

"Labor Day" is one of those holiday names we repeat so often we stop thinking about what the words originally meant. Some people set aside time to remember the human price of war on Memorial Day. Most of us give some kind of thanks on Thanksgiving. But the only ritual for Labor Day is taking the day off, and many see it only as the three-day weekend that marks the end of summer.

Yet Labor Day is as political in its history as the Fourth of July or the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. The first Labor Day celebration on the first Monday of September was in New York City in 1882, an era when labor activism was often illegal and always dangerous. Workers and police alike were killed when a labor protest near near Chicago's Haymarket Square turned violet in 1886, and federal troops fired on strikers in that city's Pullman Strike of 1894. Later that year, in a bid to calm a rising storm, Congress made Labor Day a legal holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.

Over time, Labor Day became the American version of May Day or International Labor Day, an occasion to celebrate working people and their causes, often associated with the political left. For the major U.S. political parties, it also became the unofficial starting gate for fall election campaigns of the old-fashioned kind – largely done outdoors in person with no screens of any kind.

For generations, Labor Day activities organized by unions were seen primarily as Democratic affairs. Working-class voters were the heart of the coalition Franklin Roosevelt rode to four presidential victories (1932-1944). FDR rewarded them with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, enshrining in law the right to collective bargaining and giving labor unions a new level of recognition and clout.

President Franklin Roosevelt reads to his guests as he and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, at table, host a Labor Day picnic at their residence in Hyde Park, N.Y., Sept. 3, 1934.
/ AP
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AP
President Franklin Roosevelt reads to his guests as he and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, at table, host a Labor Day picnic at their residence in Hyde Park, N.Y., Sept. 3, 1934.

But many of FDR voters or their descendants began drifting away from the Democrats in the economic expansion and relative affluence of the postwar era. The trend strengthened in the late 1960s as many grew disillusioned with the promises of President Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War and his "Great Society" programs.

Many working-class voters turned to Richard Nixon, who built his "Silent Majority" around them in 1968 and 1972. Even more joined the ranks of "Reagan Democrats" carrying Ronald Reagan to a pair of landslide wins in the 1980s. And the demographic category provided the surprising surge that elected Donald Trump in 2016 (and came close to doing it again in 2020).

Abandonment or "walking forthrightly"?

This is all part of the long postwar pattern by which the Democratic Party has departed from its traditional geographic and demographic bases. It is no longer surprising that elements of the Republican Party have eagerly embraced voters in those bases who felt the Democrats had simply abandoned them. Reagan was perhaps the most famous former Democrat who made a habit of saying: "I did not leave my party, my party left me."

The most obvious driver of this was the Democrats' move away from their historic roots as a Southern, rural party committed to states' rights. After a century of struggle among its factions, Democrats gradually followed the direction of a young speaker at the 1948 Democratic Convention. That was when Hubert Humphrey, later to be a senator and vice president and presidential nominee, called on the party to "get out of the shadow of states' and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."

Sixteen years later, Humphrey, together with other Northern and Western Democrats and some Republicans, pieced together the two-thirds majority in the Senate to overcome a filibuster by Southern Democrats and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The deep loyalty felt by many white Southerners for the party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson — and also the party of the Lost Cause and the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy — began to erode.

The trend was slowed by the election of two Southern Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter of Georgia (1976) and Bill Clinton of Arkansas (1992). But even with Clinton in office in 1994, the full consequences of Dixie's defection to the GOP erupted in a single day. That November, Republicans won the majority of Southern governorships, Senate seats and congressional seats — the first time that had happened since Reconstruction after the Civil War. Republican domination of Southern state legislatures was not far behind. And from the 1990s on, every Republican nominee for president has relied on Southern states for most of his Electoral College vote.

Local 361 iron worker Robert Farula marches up Fifth Ave. carrying an American flag during the Labor Day parade on Sept. 8, 2012 in New York.
Mary Altaffer / AP
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AP
Local 361 iron worker Robert Farula marches up Fifth Avenue carrying an American flag during the Labor Day parade on Sept. 8, 2012, in New York.

Contesting turf that had long been Democratic

That history has its parallel with regard to the votes and political loyalties of white workers who do not have college degrees. Call this voting demographic what you will, it has become the battleground in our presidential elections and in many down-ballot races as well.

That Democrats long ago lost their prior claim to this political territory is no longer surprising. Just as our political geography has changed, so have our partisan demographics. According to the source most political scientists use (the American National Election Studies Cumulative File), Republicans had an average advantage of 5 percentage points in party identification among college graduates in the 1980s. But a generation later, in the elections of 2016, 2018 and 2020, party identification among college graduates favored Democrats by an average of 14 points.

Still, with all the elements of shifting patterns in recent decades of American political life, the disconnect from the broad working class is the loss that has cost the Democrats most dearly — and the one that threatens them most in the years ahead.

It has been some time since the Democrats could simply call themselves "the party of the working man." For one thing, women's share of the total workforce is now approaching 50%. For another, increasing numbers of working people do not regard the Democrats as their party. Donald Trump won the support of workers with less than a college degree in both 2016 and 2020 by 7 percentage points in 2016 and by 8 in 2020. Among those in the category who were white, Trump's margins were 36 points in 2016 and 32 four years later.

But gaudy as Trump's advantage was in the white subcategory, Biden got 5 percentage points more than Hillary Clinton had in 2016. And that improvement was critical in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the pivot on which the Electoral College turned.

That is just an illustration of how the wage-earning sector, variously defined, has become the principal battlefield in presidential elections and for many down ballot races as well. One measure of the category has always been "union households," meaning voters who report having at least one union member in their home. But as the membership in labor unions has fallen to the low teens in percentage terms,

For example, network exit polls found Biden winning 57% of union households, even as he lost the category of workers without college degrees to Trump.

It is hard to find an observer who thinks Biden could be reelected without doing at least as well among working people as he did in 2020. And he has shown keen awareness of this from the outset of his term with his open embrace of unions, support for their leadership, bargaining positions and legislative agenda. He regularly promotes his claim that 90% of the jobs created by his massive infrastructure bill (the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act) would not need a college degree.

Just this past week Biden's Labor secretary proposed a new rule by which 3.6 million more U.S. workers would be eligible for overtime pay. He has also restocked the National Labor Relations Board with appointees confirmed by the Senate, where a Republican majority had blocked three appointees of former President Obama. That board, the powerful arbiter of labor-management disputes, now has a Democratic majority.

Republicans conceding nothing

At the same time, the GOP shows no sign of backing off its pursuit of the blue collar motherlode of winnable votes — even if Trump is not the party's nominee a third time in 2024. The in-migration of former Democrats has, in fact, transformed the GOP and recast the competitions we know as campaigns.

A Gallup Poll in late August showed public approval of labor unions as an institution at 67%, with even support among Republicans at 52%. Other recent surveys have shown public support for unions as high as it has ever been since polling began in the 1930s. And that reflects a renewed courtship by both parties.

Much of the contemporary GOP has long since shed its air of country club superiority. Some Republican events have taken on the populist tone of Trump's raucous rallies, which have been media magnets of great power in the last two election cycles.

When the Republican National Committee held its first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign in August, the broadcast began with a video of country singer Oliver Anthony, whanging a banjo and singing his Billboard No. 1 hit "Rich Men North of Richmond" — a blast at America's elite on behalf of its working poor. Immediately thereafter, the first question of the night from the Fox News moderator was: "Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?"

The candidates that night all seemed to know the song was a hit because it targeted Democrats such as President Biden. But the singer-songwriter posted a video of his own two days later with a very different take, saying "that song was written about the people on that stage." He said his real target was "the haves" who want "the have nots" to feel helpless. Populist, yes, to be sure. But was it Republican?

Surprise role for Biden

It might be said that, at 80, Biden has survived long enough to be the man of the hour. He won his first race for the Senate more than half a century ago with 50.5% of the vote and the backing of the Delaware AFL-CIO. He won the nomination for president he had sought three times when labor unions swung his way in 2020. Labor leaders and other traditional party people woke up after Super Tuesday to Biden as the de facto nominee and felt relatively comfortable with him. Not so much passion perhaps, but what the Democrats needed to defeat Trump that year.

The question going forward is whether there remains enough faith in the 80-year-old version of Biden physically — and enough confidence in Biden as a candidate — to beat back another assault from Trump. Or, alternatively, enough freshness and energy in him to match up against a fresh Republican face, if Trump is not the GOP nominee.

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Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.