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A History of Labor Day

Today is Labor Day. Yes, the day that the working class is celebrated and honored. Say what? Working class? Perhaps you thought it was just a paid day off when you could travel or have a picnic with friends and families and anticipate the start of regular season football games?

The distressing truth of Labor Day in an era governed by neo-conservatives and right-wing populists is that many workers don’t get the day off, paid or unpaid. That would not sit well, at all, with those who pushed to establish the holiday.

In the late 19th century, workers in industrial America lived a very insecure life. They frequently worked 12 hour days, seven days a week and often lived in company provided housing. That may sound nice, until you understand that the rent was set by the company so that if wages were cut, rents didn’t necessarily go down. That scenario, along with many similar injustices, is what led to the passage of the bill to establish a Federal holiday creating Labor Day, to be celebrated on the first Monday in September, on June 28, 1894.

The movement to establish a day honoring workers had been building for more than a decade prior to the passage of the Federal bill.

The first Labor Day holiday was created by Oregon, when it passed a bill on February 21, 1887, to be celebrated on the first Saturday in June. New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Colorado also passed laws establishing a Labor Day in 1887. But they chose to observe Labor Day on the first Monday in September instead of following Oregon’s lead. This was likely due to the fact that the Knights of Labor had held their first parade honoring the working class on September 5, 1882. By June 28, 1894, when Congress passed the bill establishing Labor Day as a Federal holiday, 23 other states had already created the holiday. Yet, even after Congress passed its law, not all states complied. By 1909, it was approved by all states except North Dakota and Arizona, while in Louisiana, it was only observed in New Orleans Parish. In the states of Maryland, Wyoming, and New Mexico, it was up to the governor to declare the day a holiday, on an annual basis. As late as 1930, Wyoming still had not passed a law establishing Labor Day.

For one example of the labor strife that existed during the early 1890s, one only has to read about the Pullman strike of 1894. In 1893, a depression as severe as the Great Depression swept across the industrial world. The railroad industry was particularly hard-hit. Between September of 1893 and May of 1894, George Pullman, the owner of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman, IL, cut his workers wages by 25% due to the decline in orders for railcars, but did not also cut the rent they were charged to live in his company town. Since his workers were already living on the edge of economic disaster, this tactic backfired, with the infamous Pullman Strike as a result. President Grover Cleveland sent in the U.S. Army to break the strike and they succeeded in doing so by about July 7, 1894. The strike was declared over on August 3, 1894.

Before writing this post, I had a general idea of labor conditions in the late 19th century, but I did not know many of the details that led to the establishment of Labor Day. This has been a long post, with lots of links for you to follow if you are so inclined. I’ll end this post with this article by Norman Solomon, published on the Fair Press website on August 30, 2002:

What If We Didn’t Need Labor Day?

Labor Day may be a fitting tribute to America’s workers. But what about the other 364 days of the year? Despite all the talk about the importance and dignity of working people, they get little power or glory in the everyday world of news media.

What if the situation were reversed?

Once a year, big investors and corporate owners could be honored on Business Day. To celebrate the holiday, politicians might march arm in arm through downtown Manhattan with the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Donald Trump. Executives could have the day off while media outlets said some nice things about them.

During the rest of the year, in this inverted scenario, journalists would focus on the real lives of the nation’s workforce. Instead of making heroes out of billionaire investors — and instead of reporting on Wall Street as the ultimate center of people’s economic lives — the news media would provide extensive coverage of the workplace.

For instance, such coverage would reflect the health hazards that workers face. On an average day, 18 Americans die from on-the-job injuries while an estimated 165 people die from occupational diseases. Other daily work-related figures include 36,400 injuries and 3,200 illnesses.

If media outlets can keep us so closely informed about stock prices every day, they could also keep us posted on exactly which industrial workplaces are killing and injuring America’s workers. Much of the toll is less than obvious: Researchers have found that for each American killed by a workplace injury, nearly 10 job-related deaths occur due to disease.

If these grim events were reported on a daily basis, with the intensity and attention to detail now reserved for coverage of the stock market, then our society would be much more aware of working conditions across the country — and there would be more public pressure for improvement.

In a more labor-friendly media environment, televised punditry wouldn’t be dominated by pro-corporate forums like “The Capital Gang,” “Hardball,” “The McLaughlin Group” and ABC’s “This Week” — which, not coincidentally, are made possible by union-bashing firms like Archer Daniels Midland and General Electric. In contrast, prominent TV programs would present the outlooks of people who don’t ride in limousines.

Public television — now featuring the “Nightly Business Report” show — would also be willing to air a regular program that might be called “Nightly Labor Report.” In this media dream world, National Public Radio would not continue to include a “business update” as part of hourly news broadcasts without also providing a “labor update” at the top of each hour.

The biggest-circulation dailies would not be limited to corporate-owned newspapers along the lines of USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Instead, at least one of the most widely distributed papers would be owned and operated by a coalition of labor unions. And the editorial pages would routinely publish a real diversity of views.

On the magazine racks, periodicals like Business Week and Forbes (motto: “Capitalist Tool”) would have to compete with equally bankrolled publications such as Labor Week and Solidarity Forever (motto: “Worker’s Tool”).

Congress would not get away with changing the name of Washington National Airport to Ronald Reagan National Airport, as occurred in 1998. A pro-labor media atmosphere would make it politically untenable to name the airport after a former president who smashed the air traffic controllers’ union early in his first term.

Not content to gush out a steady stream of platitudes about “democracy” and the “free market,” the news media would probe the concept of workplace democracy.

Right now, the mass media rarely explore the idea of extending democratic principles to the institutions where Americans work for a living. It’s as though we’ve been conditioned to believe that our most exalted political values — free speech and the right to vote for the leaders of powerful institutions — should not intrude past the workplace door.

A few decades ago, satirist Tom Lehrer recorded a song about National Brotherhood Week. “It’s only for a week, so have no fear,” he chortled. “Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!”

Labor Day lasts 24 hours. Too bad we need it.

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