On this three-day Labor Day weekend in 2018, the BBQs, family picnics, beach parties, parades, political speeches will be underway, and some people will be at their jobs, earning their wages or salaries on the holiday. It’s doubtful that many Americans will remember that the purpose of the first Labor Day in 1882 was to honor American workers in industry who labored for ten to twelve hours each day.
In 1884, the U.S. Congress declared Labor Day a national holiday to be celebrated on the first Monday in September. The day was and still is a time to pay tribute to America’s workers who produce vast amounts of goods and countless services for consumers worldwide.
Labor Day is also a time to remember people in the past who labored to protect workers’ safety and health. Labor leaders began organizing workers and forming unions in order to gain reasonable work days, better wages and working conditions, aid for workers injured on the job, and to eliminate child labor.
One of the early labor leaders was Mary Harris Jones (1830-1930) who became known as “Mother Jones.” Although she began her working career as a teacher, she became involved with labor organizing after she married George Jones, an organizer for the Iron Moulders Union in Memphis, Tennessee. When George and the couple’s four children died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1867, Mary moved north to Chicago where she became interested in the controversial Knights of Labor, whose mission was to unite all workers for the betterment of society.
By the 1880s, Chicago was in the midst of labor strikes and worker confrontations with employers and police. So Jones left the city to organize West Virginia coal miners who worked in life-threatening conditions for low pay. Jones helped miners’ impoverished families and became known as “Mother Jones.” From that time on, Mother Jones spent sixty years traveling across the United States, organizing miners in Colorado, seamstresses in New York, and railway workers in Illinois.
Many others have labored long and hard to unionize American workers. To name a few:
Philip A. Randolph (1889-1979) organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and headed a March on Washington to protest employment discrimination against African Americans in the defense industry and in the military.
Frances Perkins (1880-1965), U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, was the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. She consistently supported the rights of workers to organize unions and fought for safety regulations in factories.
César Chávez (1927-1973) who along with Dolores Huerta (1930–) and others organized farm workers. Chávez and Huerta were co-founders of the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.
Dozens could be added to this list. People like Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor; John L. Lewis, President of the Mine Workers (UMWA) and founding president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); Esther Peterson, advocate for the rights of workers, women and consumers; Lucy Randolph Mason, who organized unions of black and white southern workers; Maida Springer-Kemp, one of the first black women to travel worldwide to build international unity for the AFL-CIO.
Today as in the past, workers at one time or another have felt powerless when they alone have to negotiate with an employer for wages, working hours, time off, etc. Unions bring people together to strive for improvements in the workplace, work hours, and the payments they receive for their labor.
Federal workers are among those who belong to unions. However, the POTUS is no fan of unionized government workers. In May 2018, Trump signed executive orders to roll back the power of federal worker unions. The union sued and on August 25, 2018, a federal district court struck down most of the key provisions of Trump’s executive orders.
I am aware that a few days ago, Trump praised labor unions in a speech. But I don’t think he was sincere. I just can’t believe someone who has never been part of the “working class” and has been a habitual liar for most of his life.