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Labor Day: How Political and Economic Freedom Are Linked

It has never been a class holiday. It has always been a national holiday.
September 4, 2023
Labor Day: How Political and Economic Freedom Are Linked
Working a field near Billings, Montana in July 1936; thanks to irrigation, the crop survived despite drought conditions. (Photo by Arthur Rothstein for the Resettlement Administration, via the Library of Congress)

On September 6, 1936, the eve of Labor Day, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his eighth “Fireside Chat.” Although his New Deal program had seen some policy successes—including the passage in 1935 of the Social Security Act—the Great Depression was still far from over, the unemployment rate remained above 20 percent, and millions of Americans were suffering. FDR began this address by movingly describing what he saw on a just-completed tour of nine states affected by “drought devastation”:

I shall never forget the fields of wheat so blasted by heat that they cannot be harvested. I shall never forget field after field of corn stunted, earless and stripped of leaves, for what the sun left the grasshoppers took. I saw brown pastures which would not keep a cow on fifty acres.

After discussing his administration’s plans to help the drought-stricken states, and then more general plans for getting people back to work, Roosevelt concluded with these remarks (beginning at 22:15 in this audio recording*) about the meaning of Labor Day:

Tomorrow is Labor Day. Labor Day in this country has never been a class holiday. It has always been a national holiday. It has never had more significance as a national holiday than it has now. In other countries the relationship of employer and employee has been more or less accepted as a class relationship not readily to be broken through. In this country we insist, as an essential of the American way of life, that the employer-employee relationship should be one between free men and equals. We refuse to regard those who work with hand or brain as different from or inferior to those who live from their own property. We insist that labor is entitled to as much respect as property. But our workers with hand and brain deserve more than respect for their labor. They deserve practical protection in the opportunity to use their labor at a return adequate to support them at a decent and constantly rising standard of living, and to accumulate a margin of security against the inevitable vicissitudes of life.

The average man must have that twofold opportunity if we are to avoid the growth of a class-conscious society in this country.

There are those who fail to read both the signs of the times and American history. They would try to refuse the worker any effective power to bargain collectively, to earn a decent livelihood and to acquire security. It is those shortsighted ones, not labor, who threaten this country with that class dissension which in other countries has led to dictatorship and the establishment of fear and hatred as the dominant emotions in human life.

All American workers, brain workers and manual workers alike, and all the rest of us whose well-being depends on theirs, know that our needs are one in building an orderly economic democracy in which all can profit and in which all can be secure from the kind of faulty economic direction which brought us to the brink of common ruin seven years ago.

There is no cleavage between white-collar workers and manual workers, between artists and artisans, musicians and mechanics, lawyers and accountants, architects and miners.

Tomorrow, Labor Day, belongs to all of us. Tomorrow, Labor Day, symbolizes the hope of all Americans. Anyone who calls it a class holiday challenges the whole concept of American democracy.

The Fourth of July commemorates our political freedom—a freedom which without economic freedom is meaningless indeed. Labor Day symbolizes our determination to achieve an economic freedom for the average man which will give his political freedom reality.

The text has been edited to match the president’s verbal delivery, and so differs very slightly from the text as printed in the fifth volume of The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) was the 32nd president of the United States.