Labor Day, to most people, is little more than the end of summer. Labor Day commemorates the labor union movement, the demand for an eight hour work day, better working conditions, fair wages and an end to child labor.
In 1894 Labor Day became a federal holiday celebrated as a “workingman’s holiday” on the first Monday of September honoring the contributions of working men and women to America.
While labor unions were organizing in the 1870’s, small farmers, through the Grange Movement were trying to break the power of the railroads, the meat packers and the grain milling interests. Mary Elizabeth Lease urged the farmers to “raise less corn and more hell”, but farmers could never unite as the labor unions had.
In the mid-1960’s, farm worker organizers Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta formed the United Farm Workers (UFW). When the UFW’s table grape boycott brought the plight of the farm workers onto the national stage, Dolores Huerta connected the feminist movement and gender rights with the farm worker movement. And why not? Women worked the fields along side the men.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) organized in 1925 became the first African-American union to join the American Federation of Labor. Many of those involved in BSCP became leaders in the civil rights movement.
Gender equality, racial equality, fair farm prices and farm worker rights were separate issues but all related to the struggle of the unions for a fair wage and decent working conditions. Labor unions may have initially been all white and all male but, that changed.
Unions were never about the individual, they were about everyone. If one is oppressed, all are oppressed. Labor unions recognized the need to bring everyone into the struggle regardless of color or gender, because the struggle was about everyone.
Now, generations after the early struggles of labor unions, corporations have done their best to de-unionize America. Exporting jobs, closing union factories and union busting have taken their toll on jobs, wages and the economy in general.
Whether it was exploitation from the “Robber Barron’s” of the nineteenth century, the segregationists of the Jim Crow South, the growers who exploit migrant farm laborers, the agribusiness interests that squeeze and impoverish small farmers or the corporate mentality that suppresses women with a glass ceiling, the parallels are pointedly exact.
Labor unions, suffragists, feminists, civil rights advocates, small farmers and farm workers all struggle against the rich, the powerful and the corporate interests who intend to control the economy and maintain their notion of social class. The labor movement was, and still is, a reflection of society. They challenged the idea, that power and money are the trump card.
Everyone, owes a debt to the laborers. Those who often put their lives on the line, for safe work places, an eight hour work day, a five day work week, insurance, disability benefits, a fair wage, dignity and respect for manual labor.
Labor Day is a day to celebrate the power of the worker, but no less the social movements that evolved with and from the unions. It is also a day to reflect on how we can do better, for everyone.
JIM GOODMAN is a dairy farmer and activist from Wonewoc, WI and an IATP Food and Society Policy Fellow.