Thoughts & Views: A Labor Day perspective

On Sept. 1 the U.S. and Canada celebrated Labor Day as a tribute to the working men and women in each country.

Some communities around America mark the day with parades and speeches but, of late, it’s a holiday that’s been more honored in the breech than in the observance.

A brief review of how the holiday evolved might be useful, particularly in a time when the concept of a labor union is distasteful to many. In fact, 24 states – Michigan being the most recent – have passed so-called “right to work” laws as a vehicle to suppress unions.

There was a time – long before the digital age changed the political landscape – when many Americans – even young children – typically worked 12-hour days six or seven days a week in backbreaking, unsafe jobs in factories, mills and mines at bare survival pay.

If workers dared complain, they faced being summarily fired, with no recourse to an arbitrator, court or government agency.

Industrialists like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie ruled the roost and generally had the backing of federal policymakers to stand their ground against labor unrest.

But champions of oppressed labor like Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs, Peter J. McGuire and Heywood Broun (founder of The Newspaper Guild) rose up to fight for the rights of working people, many being immigrants from Europe and other lands.

It wasn’t easy, by any means, especially when these early labor pioneers tended to be tarred as “Reds” by the U.S. establishment. In some cases, union leaders did declare themselves as socialists but, by and large, it was not a movement that took hold among American workers.

Organized labor took on the industrialists in several major battles that came to define the struggle between the American working class and the establishment:

In 1886, the Haymarket Riot resulted in the deaths of several Chicago police officers and workers.

There was the Homestead Steel Strike in 1892 in which nine striking workers were killed by Pinkerton detectives at the Pittsburgh steel plant.

In 1894, tensions between railroad workers and the Pullman Co. over wage cuts and the firing of union leaders led to the Pullman Strike by members of the American Railway Union that shut down the nation’s trains west of Detroit. Ultimately, President Grover Cleveland sent in troops to break the strike. Debs, who headed the union, ended up sentenced to six months in prison.

That same year, to conciliate the burgeoning labor movement, Cleveland declared the first Monday in September as Labor Day, a federal holiday and it has been celebrated as such since then.

Disclosure: During my tenure at The Jersey Journal, I served for several years as president of the local chapter of The Newspaper Guild and witnessed the transition from the old typesetting machines to computers that ushered out the International Typographical Union and its members who had the unenviable job of sitting at those infernal machines that fashioned pieces of hot lead into characters that ended up forming our stories onto the pages of the old JJ.

Before and during my tenure at the paper, for the men and women who labored in the JJ newsroom, the Guild – which came into its own after World War II – offered protection against arbitrary firing, decent wages and benefits, and a right to a pension, among other things.

Now, as a result of attrition, the union has been subsumed by the Guild’s New York Local and is struggling to stay afloat.

But I can say I’m proud to have been a union member and I believe, still, in the validity of the union movement to preserve the rights of workers everywhere.

– Ron Leir 

The Observer Staff