News & Events

Contractual holidays and Election Day

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
November/Decembner 2008 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

Now that another election day has passed and 129.8 million Americans exercised their democratic right to vote in an historic election, it might be useful to ponder ways that we, as union members, can contribute to that process.

Contractual holidays
Most MNA contracts include a list of paid holidays that have been negotiated into the agreement. These most commonly include:

  • New Years Day
  • Martin Luther King Day
  • Presidents Day
  • Memorial Day
  • Independence Day
  • Labor Day
  • Columbus Day
  • Veterans Day
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas

Public sector contracts may include other holidays, such as:

  • Patriots Day
  • Evacuation Day (Suffolk County)
  • Bunker Hill Day (Suffolk County)

Unique state holidays
Massachusetts is not unique in commemorating either a local or regional event or figure with a state-specific holiday. A sampling of other states includes: California and Colorado have Cesar Chavez Day; Utah has Pioneer Day; Rhode Island has Victory Day; Illinois has Pulaski Day; Alabama has Mardi Gras; Alaska has Seward’s Day; Nevada has Nevada Day and Family Day (the Friday after Thanksgiving; Vermont has Bennington Battle Day; Nebraska has Arbor Day; Texas has San Jacinto Day and Maine also has Patriots Day. In addition, many of these states have multiple state holidays. All of these serve the valuable purpose of keeping their local history commemorated and alive.

Unions continue to negotiate new commemorative days as holidays into their contracts. The Peabody Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, recently negotiated with the city of Peabody to have Sept. 11 recognized as a paid holiday as a way to honor those who lost their lives on that date. Of course, as expected and on cue, the usual suspects—the Boston Herald and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation— squawked that this is somehow inappropriate, to honor the dead of New York Police when Peabody didn’t lose any. They may have forgotten that it was President George W. Bush who first proposed recognizing 9/11 as a holiday.

Election Day as a holiday
Numerous states recognize Election Day as a state holiday, including Kentucky, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. The United Auto Workers has also negotiated the federal Election Day into their contracts as a paid holiday every four years.

Therefore, it might be useful to consider Election Day – central to the exercise of our democracy – as a contractual holiday. Such a holiday can only positively add to a vibrant participatory democracy. Working people could use the time to exercise their civic duty to vote. A nurse or health care professional who works a 12 hour shift may not even be able to vote at all – since the polls might only be open when they are working, unless they had the foresight to request an absentee ballot well in advance of the election date.

Democracy and voting
In the 2004 presidential election, 122 million Americans cast a ballot. This represented 64 percent of registered voters in the country, but only about 50 percent of the voting age population. That trend of about 50 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot has unfortunately been fairly consistent for decades. In 1960, a high percentage of participation was hit with 64 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot; this year, it was 62.8 percent.

On the TV show American Idol, each week millions of people take the time and effort (and cost) to vote for their favorite performer. For the entire 2005 season, some 500 millions votes were cast! Granted many of these may reflect multiple votes per person, but the key is that voting has been made easy and accessible. In the 2004 presidential election only 20 million voters age 18-29 exercised their right to vote.

Perhaps there are some lessons here that can be translated to our democracy—making voting easier. This is not to suggest that voting by phone is the answer, but a national holiday can go a long way to achieve that goal by providing the time for people to go to the polls. Negotiating such a holiday into our MNA contracts can begin that process.

Colonial history
Finally, the colonial days of the U.S. provides a useful lesson and some historical perspective on how early Americans viewed Election Day.

“Election day for representatives to the colonial assembly, however, was usually treated as a major celebration. … Even the stern Puritans who settled New England viewed the colony-wide election as a day of great importance, and they celebrated it with as much pomp as their religion allowed. For them, it was the most important colonial annual holiday. Shops and schools were closed, and town inhabitants, dressed in their finery, gathered in the marketplace.” (From Election Day: An American Holiday, An American History, by Kate Kelly)

In addition, there were: parades, sermons, election day cake (a yeast cake with raisins and sweet spices), ox roastings, barbequed beef and pork, large quantities of rum and entertainment. “Even George Washington participated in this kind of ritual” (Kate Kelly) by providing “cider royal” for the voters “both those who voted for and against him.” We have unfortunately drifted very far from those early days by ignoring our roots and our past. It may be time to begin restoring that excitement.