What Labor Day is all about

While visiting my favorite coffee shop over the extended weekend, I looked at the chalk board they have up introducing the workers … and asking a daily trivia question.

The question of the day was “Which president signed the bill that made Labor Day a national holiday?”

I guessed William McKinley.

I was wrong. It was President Grover Cleveland.

I hate being wrong on trivia questions, but being wrong spurs me on to learn about the topic.

I found that Labor Day was instituted by President Cleveland as something of a nod to organized labor following his ordering of a brutal attack on workers during the Pullman strike in the early 1890s.

In 1893, the U.S. was bogged down in an economic panic with a huge loss of jobs nationwide and the country teetering on the brink of a depression.

The Pullman railroad car company cut workers wages in order to maintain profits when purchase orders shrank as a result of the ‘recession.’

Workers saw wages decrease although their time spent at work increased. Shifts typically were 16 hours in length ... seven days a week.

Company owner George Pullman refused to even discuss the issue saying his employees should be happy they even have jobs.

The workers organized a strike that shut down Pullman operations. In sympathy, railroad workers across the country refused to service trains pulling Pullman cars, almost stopping rail traffic.

A nationwide boycott of Pullman cars by any worker represented by any union was organized in 1894. In sympathy to the Pullman strikers, some 125,000 workers quit their jobs on the railroad rather than work with anything labeled ‘Pullman.’

After an intense period of anti-Pullman activity in the public square, Pres. Cleveland broke the strike using federal marshals and 12,000 soldiers from the United States Army. In attacks on strikers, 13 workers were killed and 57 were wounded under the presidential excuse that they were a “danger to public safety.”

Later, in an attempt to calm things down, it was Cleveland who then expressed his solidarity with the working people of this nation and declared the first Monday in September as Labor Day, (being very careful to disassociate the date from International Workers’ Day on May 1.)

Labor Day was once an important holiday. Today, it supplies material for trivia questions on coffee shop blackboards, and gives everyone a great reason to party one more time before the cottage is closed up for the season.

But ...

It is certainly possible that Labor Day may once again grow in importance.

Anti-labor forces in this country are dragging the nation back to the good ol’ Ayn Rand dream days when there was no organized labor; when there was no collective bargaining; when folks tugged at their forelocks as the boss walked by.

Folks — even the quaintly termed “working class” — seem to forget that it was organized labor that created a middle class in this nation, and truth be known it is organized labor that is struggling to maintain a middle class in these United States.

While neo-con politicians, flush with Ayn Rand-ian delusions, do everything they can to reduce and even eliminate workers’ rights around the country, the middle class continues to slowly but surely melt away.

In states like Wisconsin, Ohio and sadly Michigan, political supporters of the wealthiest of the wealthy muscle through anti-labor laws under the guise of “job creation.”

The first victim is collective bargaining, which politicians on the right say crushes jobs.

And people in the streets believe them.

But what collective bargaining actually does is protect jobs — at decent wage levels — and protect workers’ rights from the casual decisions of management to “cut cost and increase productivity”, (code words for “more work for less pay.”)

In a study carried out by the Department of Labor it was recently shown that many workers basically labor under the threat of losing their jobs.

The economic situation, and new policies in many states basically has given private employers “ ...the upper hand to demand more work, lower wages, and givebacks from employees, while austerity politics has led to public sector layoffs across the country.”

And corporate profits increase daily — by the billions.

In Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Arizona and, of course, Michigan, legislatures scurry to do everything they can to crush the protection of workers, and governors in those states sign off on anything they can to destroy organized labor before the next guy is sworn in.

Folks seem to forget that it was only the unions that brought about:

• A living minimum wage - something conservative politicians say kills jobs.

• Child labor laws — again, something many conservative politicians say kills jobs, especially in the ag market.

• An eight-hour work day and the concept of a weekend — something conservative politicians say kills jobs.

• Overtime pay — which kills jobs.

• Pensions — kills jobs too.

• Health benefits — the ultimate job killer according to the Ayn Rand gang.

All of these things came about because of organized labor — because union workers struggled and even died for basic rights to a decent living.

Not one of these benefits was generated by corporate bosses or conservative politicians benevolently looking out for the good of their workers or constituents.


Labor Day really is an important holiday.

Too bad we’ve all pretty much forgotten what it is all about.