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Monday, September 1, 2014

Samuel Gompers, Can We Talk?

On September 4, 1910, Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of labor (AFL) wrote the following in the New York Times: “Among all the festive days of the year, of all the days commemorative of great epochs in the world’s history, of all the days celebrated for one cause or another, there is not one which stands so conspicuously for social advancement of the common people as the first Monday in September of each recurring year—Labor Day.”  According to Mr. Gompers Labor Day is the only holiday that celebrates the common man (and woman, though not then)—not religion, a war anniversary, or the birth or death of a famous person.  I disagree.  I think that Mr. Gompers and I need to talk.

Someone much smarter than me once said that a person’s religion is those standards that give meaning and dictate the way that one lives his or her life.  It is their purpose in life. This person argued this in saying that there were no non-religious wars . . . that all wars were religious.  Someone was always pushing one way of believing and living onto someone else who did not care to give up the way that he or she was already believing and living.  Another person, again probably much smarter than I, stated that the one true religion is economics . . . that all of life is dictated by economics . . . all of life.  Having now lived more than a half-century I am seeing a whole lot of wisdom in that statement . . . plus a whole lot of truth.  Based on that, I am not sure how Mr. Gompers came to the conclusion that Labor Day was such a clean and pure holiday that celebrated nothing but the common worker.

First of all, what do you know about Labor Day?
Did you know that Labor Day was a result of labor unrest?  In the late 1800s the labor movement was growing and beginning to have more and more influence in national politics.  On May 11th, 1894, a strike took place in Chicago by the employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives.  A month later there was a call to boycott all Pullman railway cars that basically crippled all rail transportation across the nation.  In typical government fashion, the federal government sent troops to Chicago to break the strike.  Well, when push comes to shove the strikers pushed back . . . riots broke out and more than a dozen workers were killed in all of the violence.

So, how does one make amends?  The federal government, under Congress, created Labor Day as a legal holiday to celebrate the social and economic achievements of American workers and their contributions to the strength and prosperity of the nation.  It was Congress’ hope that it could regain the support of the American workers.  After all, a little gesture can go a long ways in getting people back to work.  What good is an economy when no one is working?  The date? June 28th, 1894, Congress designated the first Monday in September of each year to be a legal holiday.

Despite the recognition of the government and the establishment of a federal holiday, it would be nearly twenty years later before a whole lot of respect was shown to the common worker.  It was not until 1916 that workers were granted the eight-hour work day through the Adamson Act.  This Act established an eight-hour work day and additional pay for overtime.  Prior to that it was not uncommon for a laborer to work twelve-hour days for six days a week.   The movement towards a five-day workweek started in 1908 when a spinning mill in New England started accommodating its Jewish workers.  The Jewish workers had difficulty observing the Sabbath under the traditional six-day work week.  If they took Saturday off and worked on Sunday they risked offending the Christian majority, but to work on Saturday violated their own religious beliefs . . . so the owners went to a five-day work week.

In 1926, Henry Ford jumped on the bandwagon and started to close his factories over Saturday and Sunday to give his workers a two-day weekend without reducing their pay.  The first union to jump on board this movement was the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America as it negotiated a five-day work week for its members.  The nation ponied up to the five-day work week in 1938 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act that established a five-day, 40-hour work week for many laborers.  It has been said that it is at this point in history that the great American weekend was born.  It only took 40 years to get to this point in was a wonderful gift and recognition of the common worker, until 1938 most laborers were still working a six-day week . . . so, at best the holiday only gave them a two-day weekend, unlike out three-day weekend celebration of Labor Day today.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2013, there are 155.7 million workers in the United States over the age of 16.  Many of them won’t get the holiday that is set aside for them to celebrate because they will have to work.  A good chunk of the workers in the United States are working in retail . . . approximately 4.3 million of them . . . who will not be off due to the fact that most retailers are open for their big Labor Day sales.  Kind of ironic isn’t it?

Looking over the history of the labor movement and the establishment of a national holiday to honor labor, one could argue that the actual holiday is set aside—though indirectly—to honor those dozen or so people who were killed in the Pullman strike and riots in Chicago.  That would make it a holiday for the death of someone.  One would argue whether or not it is a celebration or an appeasement when viewing a history that has taken decades to bring fairness and justice to the labor practices of industry . . . the eight hour work day . . . the history of the five-day, 40 hour work week . . . child labor laws . . . payment for overtime . . . health benefits . . . and on and on the list could go.  The arguments are still there.  And, why? Probably because such changes effect the profit margin of industry . . . usually to the lower end.  When this happens industry makes less money.  Money deals with economics.  Economics is what makes the world spin around.  It is a religion in the minds and hearts of many.

Very few of us who celebrate the big three-day weekend of observing Labor Day on the first Monday of each September actually know anything about the holiday.  As much as Mr. Gompers wants to believe that it is a non-religious holiday, I just cannot agree.  I cannot agree because the almighty dollar is the altar that many of us worship . . . that gives us purpose and meaning . . . that dictates our lives . . . that gets us out of bed every morning.  The truth of the matter is that we, as a nation, would not be where we are today in the economic world if it were not for the dedication and hard work that was put in by those who labor through the years . . . but, the question is: Who profits?  It is not the common laborer.  Someone has been getting rich off all of this . . . and, it is not the common laborer.

As much as I would like to embrace the mythology behind Labor Day, thanks to people like Mr. Samuel Gompers, I find it difficult to jump on that bandwagon in ignorance.  History that is based on facts, not wishful thinking and mythology, usually paints a different story than the one that most Americans embrace and celebrate . . . and this is true in other nations too.  I appreciate the gift of a three-day weekend that Labor Day affords those of us able to actually take it off and celebrate it; yet, at the same time I do not want to fool myself into thinking that it is a pure and simple gesture of gratitude for all the hard work of millions of laborers—past and present.  For a great many, unbeknownst to them, it is a religious holiday . . . a holiday of remembrance for those who gave their lives for equal rights and justice . . . and, based on the fact that many retailers are open, an altar to the almighty dollars that is making someone rich.

As usual, this is my rant . . . my opinion.  But, I ask you: how much do you really know about Labor Day . . . about what you are celebrating?  Labor Day is more than the unofficial end to summer.  What is it?  Well, it depends on who you ask?  Those who run the world’s economy will say one thing, those who are doing all the work another, and those of us who are celebrating it even another.  Maybe we need to sit down and talk . . . wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Gompers?  Happy Labor Day everyone!

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