Labor Day was created in 1894, when President Grover Cleveland, desperate to win re-election, rushed through a bill to appease the nation’s angry workers just days after he had sent federal troops to Chicago to break a railway strike. A September celebration of labor had in fact been started by the Knights of Labor a decade earlier. Today, for most Americans, it is a long weekend, and the last, lazy day of summer, of barbeques and beaches.
From its inception, the holiday was unabashedly about men – extolling muscles and the workingman. Labor’s mythic personalities were men like Jimmy Hoffa, bushy-browed mine workers’ leader John L. Lewis and the radical organizer Big Bill Haywood. Its martyrs and saints were also men, like Joe Hill and the Haymarket Square anarchists and Gene Debs.
I’m a child of the labor movement, except that I experienced its triumphs and defeats through the eyes of women –- especially my mother, Jennie.
When I was five years old, during the Great Depression, I accompanied her to Chattanooga,Tennessee, where she had been sent by the Textile Workers Union.She was an organizer. Her assignment was to sign up the mill hands who tended the looms and spindles—and were paid as little as four dollars for a 60-hour work week.
Women workers especially were mistreated in the mills. Often denied bathroom breaks or stools to rest on while they stood at their weaving frames, they were victims of a punishing piece-rate and ‘stretch out’ system. The factory owners were like feudal barons, with their own private armies and the National Guard to break strikes. Violence against strikers, or anyone who spoke up, was routine. Pro-union ‘agitators’ were marked for blacklisting or worse. Union organizers like my mom could disappear (get killed) or end up tarred and feathered.
Word soon got out that Mom was having clandestine meetings at our kitchen table, after dark, with both black and white women workers. Breaking the color line was in itself a capital crime at that time and place. Deputies came and arrested Jennie, and so we both ended up behind bars in the Hamilton County jail. We were lucky to get off so lightly. After a day and a half, the sheriff took us to the train station and graciously ran us out of town.
Jennie was an average woman – without being average at all. She had left school at twelve and led her first strike at thirteen after witnessing the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. She was the equal, if not better, of any man at the bargaining table and on the picket line – where she insisted on wearing her ‘best’: Belgian lace gloves, cloche hat and ‘Cuban’ heels. She was afraid of nothing and could not be intimidated, But, like so many women of her time, she was shy of “putting herself forward”, in self promotion, even more than she feared jail or a cop’s truncheon. Her amazing generation of women could fight for others but were strangely reticent about speaking up for themselves.
How many women were there like my mother? Nobody will ever know. A few are celebrated – Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, Frances Perkins the first female Labor Secretary, and in the movies, Norma Rae. But, for someone like me, born on a Labor Day, the real history of this holiday is buried at the Workmen’s Circle cemetery in Los Angeles, not far from where I live. There Jennie is surrounded by the modest graves of her rank and file union sisters and brothers – the anonymous foot soldiers who made the factories safer, banned child labor, fought for our pensions and health benefits and yes, gave us this weekend.
CLANCY SIGAL is a screenwriter and novelist living in Los Angeles. He has recently published a memoir of his mother, ‘A Woman of Uncertain Character’. This column was written for the Philadelphia Inquirer. email: email@example.com