In 1894, the United States officially recognized Labor Day as a federal holiday. From then on, the first Monday of September would be a time for reflection, relaxation, and honoring the labor heroes and protests of our past. It’s our only major national holiday that celebrates the workers who collectively improved this country through boycotts, strikes, and union efforts.
But while some of us are sitting at home and enjoying the day, it’s worth noting that the level of equity in our workplaces hardly lives up to Labor Day’s promise.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, investigates complaints of workplace discrimination. The agency’s caseload is daunting; they typically close more than 100,000 cases every year. Unsurprisingly, there’s no protected class that consistently benefits from the EEOC’s investigations. Complaints based on age, gender, disability, or other immutable characteristics, largely don’t pan out. In fact, only 18% of filers receive some form of relief.
Claims based on race fare the worst of all. Only 15% of those complaints result in relief, despite making up a vast majority of cases. And even though Black workers constitute only 13% of our workforce, they face 26% of all workplace discrimination.
This disparity reveals just how far the EEOC has fallen from its inception in the Civil Rights Act. It’s less a failure of conviction or direction and more revealing of our country’s systemic ignorance of racial abuses. Appropriations show some worrying trends in this regard. Here, you can see that EEOC staff has been consistently reduced over time.
While the congressionally enacted funding has generally increased over time, it hasn’t kept pace with inflation. For example, if the EEOC funding level from 1984 was translated to today, it should amount to over $510 million. In reality, Congress approved only $389,500,000 for the EEOC in 2020.
Many point to the dwindling EEOC budget as rationale for the agency’s inactivity. From 1980 to 2021, our working population increased by 50% to 160 million; confirming workplace discrimination takes time and resources. Many former staffers agree that given more funding, the EEOC would likely side with filers more often than not.
This Labor Day let’s talk about sufficiently funding the EEOC. By genuinely working toward the abolition of workplace discrimination, we can honor the working forefathers of the country. There are people who gave their lives in the pursuit of fair working conditions and collective bargaining. Our government has repeatedly dispatched officers to violently suppress labor protests and strikes.
And yet, Black and Brown workers aren’t treated fairly in their jobs.
One thing, then, is clear: While it’s nice getting Labor Day off, we’d prefer if our institutions actually honored workers by addressing workplace discrimination. The status quo of nominally honoring a group without committing to helping said group behind the scenes has gone on for far too long. If we want to celebrate Black History Month, let’s actually remember events like the Tulsa Race Massacre. If we want to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, let’s not ignore our history of trying to “assimilate” Native Americans into white, Western society.
The time for these surface level observances has passed – it’s time we demand substantive action from the leaders who grandstand during every one of these holidays.