Monday, September 7, 2009

Celebrating the true meaning of Labor Day

As a Vice-President for the AFT - American Federation of Teachers (hence the image of the educator above) Guild - in my hometown I am proud to celebrate this day. For some this day has turned into just another day off for partying. For others it has come to symbolize the end of summer and wearing white. However, I think it's important that we remember what this day truly symbolizes and how important it remains for worker's rights to be protected. To that end I'd like to share two articles this Labor Day. The first article is a history of this day from the U.S. Department of Labor and the second piece was written this morning by Dr. Walter Brasch, Professor of Journalism at Bloomsburg University.

Labor Day: How it Came About; What it Means
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
Founder of Labor Day
More than 100 years after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold." But Peter McGuire's place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.
The First Labor Day
The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883. In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a "workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.
Labor Day Legislation
Through the years the nation gave increasing emphasis to Labor Day. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From them developed the movement to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
A Nationwide Holiday
The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day should take were outlined in the first proposal of the holiday — a street parade to exhibit to the public "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. The character of the Labor Day celebration has undergone a change in recent years, especially in large industrial centers where mass displays and huge parades have proved a problem. This change, however, is more a shift in emphasis and medium of expression. Labor Day addresses by leading union officials, industrialists, educators, clerics and government officials are given wide coverage in newspapers, radio, and television. The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.

Labor Day: The Unknown Holiday
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."

Have a wonderful Labor Day and please continue to support the tireless work done to ensure every worker's entitled rights. We continue on because the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dreams shall never die.