Sunday, September 6, 2009

Labor Day, 2009

Labor Day weekend is upon us, which for most people now signifies the end of summer. This year the thought of summer coming to an end is particularly difficult (for those of us in the northeast) given that June/July were so wet and woeful, and it seems like we never really had a summer, or at least that summer got squished into a two week period in August.

The three, or four day weekend for many is a chance to close up the camp, get in one last summer shindig, or for some, the chance to wrap up, or complete projects around the house.

Labor Day is now a federal holiday, which is always celebrated the first Monday in September. The first official Labor Day celebration took place on September 5, 1882, in New York City, after American Labor leader Peter McGuire witnessed a similar celebration of workers in Toronto, Canada and thought a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

The Canadian event celebrating labor’s role was born from that disputes and strife in that nation connected to the “Nine-hour Movement,” first in Hamilton, and later Toronto. Parades held supporting that initiative and in conjunction with a printer’s strike led to that nation’s celebration of its laboring classes, and it was this event that McGuire originally saw that led to his initiation of the first New York City event.

[Labor Day parade, Buffalo, NY, circa 1900]

Nationwide recognition and Labor Day’s official sanction came in 1894. It was in the aftermath of a particularly violent strike in Chicago, involving the Pullman Palace Car Company, when federal troops were ordered in by President Cleveland to end the strike. The president’s action at federalizing strikebreaking led to the death of two workers at the hands of U.S. deputy marshals, when they fired on protesters, in Kensington, near Chicago.

1894 was an election year, and President Cleveland, fearing additional violence, but more important, looking for an opportunity to appear conciliatory towards labor, sought quick passage of legislation making Labor Day a national holiday. The bill was rushed through Congress where it passed unanimously and signed into law in a mere six days following the end of the Pullman strike.

In 1898, Samuel Gompers, then head of the American Federation of Labor, called Labor Day “the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed...that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.”

According to Gallup, only about 1 in 10 Americans belong to a labor union, based upon recent estimates, and about one in six U.S. households include a union member. This is down from the heyday of unions in the 1950s when almost 50 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union. In that context, it’s not surprising that the labor aspect of Labor Day is no longer emphasized.

As someone who appreciates history, and actually knows some labor history, I’m keenly aware of the gains that workers that came long before my time have extended to me via battle and sacrifice. Sadly, like many other key aspects of our nation’s culture and heritage, they are being scrubbed from memory mainly because students in the schools of today don’t learn about them.

In doing some research online to post my nod to Labor Day, I happened across Bill Stanley’s article for the Norwich Bulletin. I'm guessing that Stanley is a citizen of the "seasoned" variety from some of the personal information that he shares regarding his own labor background. Like many men of his era, he remembers when men (and women) had to physically contend for the things that we all take for granted today.

Labor history isn’t ancient history. It wasn’t that long ago (20 years) that Maine witnessed a particularly contentious strike in the town of Jay, Maine, a strike that still leaves its mark on the community where it occurred.

I still remember my own family being affected by strikes when my father, a paper mill worker, would go out on strike, sometimes for weeks at a time. I can remember as a youngster, lying in bed and hearing my mother and father talking about it and wondering what might happen to us. Would my father go back to work? Would we have enough food? I remember my dad coming home with boxes of groceries that had been provided to striking workers to tide them over until the strike was settled.

Those are just a few of my own memories that I reflect back upon on Labor Day, this year.

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