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The Origins of Labor Day

by WALTER BRASCH

It’s Labor Day, and that means millions of Americans are celebrating. Most Americans have no idea what Labor Day is, other than self-serving political speeches, hot dogs, burgers, a pool party, and the last day of a three-day holiday. Few even know that Labor Day exists to allow people to remember and honor the struggles for respect, dignity, and acceptable wages and working conditions for the rank-and-file employees.

We don’t know that the Knights of Labor created the first Labor Day in 1882 and that Congress made it a national holiday in 1894.

Almost none of us, including life-long union workers, know the personalities of the labor movement. About Mother Jones (1830-1930), the militant “angel of the coal fields” for more than six decades. About “Big Bill” Haywood (1869-1928) who organized the Industrial Workers of the World, a universal coalition to fight for the rights of all labor. About cigar-chomping Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), the first president of the American Federation of Labor, a job he held for 38 years.

We don’t know about Sidney Hillman (1887-1946) who led strikes in 1916 to reduce the work week to 48 hours, from the standard 54–60 hours, and then helped create the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) before becoming a major political force for workers during the labor-friendly Roosevelt administration. Missing from our collective knowledge is the life of Saul Alinsky (1909-1972), known as the “father of grassroots political campaigns” who worked alongside Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) who used Alinsky’s tactics to organize the United Farm Workers.

Most of us probably never heard about Eugene Debs (1855-1926), Joe Hill (1879-1915), and thousands of others who went to prison or were murdered defending the rights of the workers not only to organize, but to demand better working conditions. The names of Tompkins Square, Cripple Creek, Homestead, Lattimer, Lawrence, and dozens of other places where police forces massacred workers are unknown. We don’t know about the Avondale mine fire that killed 110, because of faulty construction of the colliery and a disregard for worker safety, or of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, where 148 women, some as young as 12, working under brutal sweat-shop conditions, died because a fire door was chained. We won’t become involved in the struggle, risk our jobs and futures. That’s someone else’s responsibility. We’ll just follow inane rules and complain privately.

Most Americans, and certainly most journalists, don’t know the story of Horace Greeley, a social activist and the nation’s most prominent ante-bellum publisher, who created The New York Typographical Union for his typesetters and printers because he believed they needed representation. Most journalists also don’t know about Heywood Broun (1888-1939), one of the nation’s best-paid columnists who risked his own financial stability to create The Newspaper Guild in 1935 to help those reporters making one-hundredth of his salary. Most media don’t even have local stories about Labor Day, preferring to run nationally-distributed stories and not “waste” any of the few reporters they have left.

The national syndicates and wire services, plus a few socially-conscious newspapers, may make the effort to find a current labor leader who will say organized labor is having a tough time but is still strong and vital, the only recourse against poor working conditions and unfair labor practices. The stories will tell us that about 12.4 percent of all workers are in unions, down from a peak of 35 percent in 1954, but the reporters don’t dig into myriad ways of intimidation by Management, or of the professionals who mistakenly believe because they are professionals and not workers they don’t need unions.

The reporters may interview the workers. An elderly man’s remembrance of his life in the coal mines or breakers, and what Black Lung did not only to his own health but to his family and friends. They might chat with an elderly woman who worked 12-hour days six days a week for $3–$4 a day in the heat and humidity of a garment factory. They may talk with a few current workers who tell us the Recession has cut deep into their lives, but they work hard and are pleased that they still have a job.

Some stories may even dryly point out statistics—that the unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), is 9.7 percent, up from 4.8 percent when the Recession began in December 2007, that 14.9 million Americans are unemployed, up from 7.4 million. The stories might even note that 9.1 million Americans work part-time either because their hours and wages were “downsized” or because they couldn’t find full-time work. Another 2.3 million Americans are “marginally attached,” according to the BLS; these are unemployed Americans who aren’t listed as “unemployed” because they haven’t looked for work in four weeks; of these 2.3 million, about 760,000 are “discouraged”—their unemployment benefits have run out, they have tried to find work, but have given up.

Meanwhile, corporate executives are taking multi-million dollar bonuses for improving the “cash flow.” Even if executive management makes significant mistakes, and the “return on investment” isn’t what the Board of Directors expects, or the companies fail because of management incompetence and greed, almost all CEOs and their immediate underlings have the “golden parachute” that allows a soft drop from employment, yielding termination packages that amount to millions of dollars and considerable benefits and bonuses that no working class person will ever receive.

Business euphemistically claims because of “downsizing,” “rightsizing,” and “outsourcing,” mostly to foreign countries, the “bottom line” is improved; corporate investors are being “optimally compensated.” Since the recession began, more than a year before President George W. Bush left office, about 4.3 million Americans have been “downsized,” according to data compiled by Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc.  Data collected by NowPublic reveals that 2008 was “the worst year for layoffs and job losses in the United States since World War II.” Although terabytes of data reveal the Recession is slowing under the massive Obama stimulus package, another one million Americans will be laid off this year. Recent Department of Labor studies report that American workers are “the most productive” ever. That’s because not only are they are doing so much more to compensate for their fellow workers having been laid off, but because they live with the fear if they don’t work even harder they, too, may be laid off or lose promotions in an economy that went as far south as our manufacturing plants.

Of course, there are some industries that have gained in the past year’s plunging economy. Retail sales, which the Department of Labor reports as having the lowest average wages, is gaining workers. But, that’s because it’s just “good business sense” to hire 75 low-paid part-timers and save the cost of benefits than to hire 50 full-time clerks. Only about 16 percent of all retail workers even receive health care benefits, according to the BLS.

To the 50-year-old who worked hard for one company more than half of his life, showed up for work on time, left on time, and tolerated the company’s banal preaching about everyone is “part of our happy family,” and then is laid off as an “economy measure,” the numbers don’t matter. To the worker who put in 20 years in one job, and then is fired for reasons that would be questionable under any circumstance, the numbers don’t matter. To the $20,000-a-year worker who is told she won’t receive a raise because “we’re having a bad year,” but sees upper management not only get raises and more stock options, but also hire other managers, all of them making five times or more than her salary, the other numbers don’t matter.

But, millions of Americans will have their bar-b-ques and family reunions, they’ll splash in the ocean or hike mountain trails, and they will have no idea why the struggle for worker rights must be fought every day by every worker.

WALTER BRASCH is author of 17 books, a syndicated columnist, and professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award. You may contact him through his website, www.walterbrasch.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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