Monday, September 2, 2013

On the Historical Significance of Labor Day

Submitted by the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) of Solano County [link], 2013-08 by Eugene E. Ruyle, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Long Beach [] [510 428-1578] []:

As we enter the Labor Day weekend, many on the left will repeat the myth that Labor Day has no historical significance and is simply an effort by capitalist politicians to break up the international solidarity of American workers by providing an alternative to May Day and. As a result, an opportunity to educate the U.S. working class about its real history, and how Labor Day grew out of U.S. labor struggles, has been lost.
A clear statement of this myth may be found in an article in the Weekly People on Sep. 3, 1955:
American Labor Day -- the first Monday in September -- is traditionally a day for buttering up the American workers and telling them about the wonderful gains they are supposed to be making under the capitalist system. This is a logical use of Labor Day. The holiday is not something labor wrested from capital through struggle. On the contrary, it represents a gift handed to the workers free, gratis and for nothing by the capitalist politicians. . . . September Labor Day was meant as an antidote for labor's own May Day. . . . It is logical, therefore, that it be used to keep labor in capitalist blinders.
The problem with this view is that the date usually given for the first Labor Day is September 5, 1882—four years BEFORE Haymarket and nine years BEFORE the Second International proclaimed May Day as an international holiday in solidarity with the Haymarket martyrs. Interestingly enough, it was first proposed by two members of the Socialist Labor Party Club of New York, Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire. How, then, could it have originated as an alternative to May Day? A little research reveals a much different story.

The first Labor Day observance in 1882 at Union Square in New York:

The roots of Labor Day go back to the middle ages, and during the French Revolution a special day in September was set aside as a labor holiday. In nineteenth-century North America, celebrations, picnics, parades, benefits, and demonstrations of various kinds were held to support shorter hours, to help strikers, and for other labor causes. There are reports of early Labor Day celebrations in Toronto, Canada, in 1872 and in Boston in 1878. The first Labor Day in Australia was celebrated in 1856. According to the research of Jonathan Grossman, however, a good case can be made that the American Labor Day holiday grew out of the parade and picnic of the Central Labor Union of New York City on September 5, 1882:
The year 1882 was charged with excitement for organized workers in New York City. On January 30, thousands of workers packed Cooper Union in support of Irish tenants against their British landlords. Under such banners as "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay," union leaders expressed the unity of labor's cause throughout the world. Among the participants were Matthew Maguire, Secretary of the Committee on Arrangements, who read letters from labor unions from every part of America, and Peter J. McGuire, who "spoke eloquently for half an hour, retiring among continued applause ...”
Maguire and McGuire, both members of the Socialist Labor Party Club of New York, proposed the holiday to the Central Labor Union of New York. On Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, about ten thousand workers took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday and celebrating labor’s international cause. It became an annual event that spread to other cities and states as the movement for a national Labor Day grew and a number of states recognized the holiday.

More than a dozen strikers were killed in the Pullman Strike of 1894

Congress would not legalize the holiday until 1894, after a watershed moment in American labor history. On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. On June 26, the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break the strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, resulting in the deaths of more than a dozen workers. In the wake of this massive unrest, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday. No longer would workers have to take an unpaid day off to relax and celebrate their history.
These remarks are not intended to minimize the importance of May Day. Both May Day and Labor Day are days of celebration for workers. Both grew out of the struggles of workers for the eight-hour day and better working conditions, and many of the same people and organizations were involved in the origin of both holidays. However, there were conflicts between different tendencies within the labor movement and this has affected the history of these two labor holidays. Curiously, Labor Day was started by members of the Socialist Labor Party in 1882, but the SLP was denouncing it as a bourgeois plot by the end of the 19th Century. Conversely, May Day was started in 1886 by the precursor of the American Federation of Labor, but the AFL was denouncing it as a communist plot by the end of the 19th Century.
As Yale historian David Montgomery notes, “Little is gained by calling one holiday real and the other phony. We need to know what both have meant to workers.” Labor Day, like the weekend, was brought to us by the union movement. If Labor Day has become de-politicized, we need to re-politicize it. We can do so by honoring the 13 union strikers murdered by federal troops during the Pullman Strike of 1894. It is to them, not the capitalist politicians, that we owe this holiday.

Students march at the annual LA/LB Harbor Labor Day Parade

In Southern California, the Los Angeles Long Beach Harbor Labor Coalition has organized an annual Labor Day Parade and Picnic since 1979, with up to 10,000 attendees representing over 100 unions. Each year a difference slogan is chosen, such as: “Protect the 8-Hour Workday” “Labor Produces Wealth,” “Unity Across the Border,” “Workers of the World Unite,” “The Labor Movement Gave Me the Weekend.” As I recall, free hot dogs and other snacks were handed out and there were speeches addressing the state of Labor, from its recent past to the coming future. No politicians, however, were allowed on the podium, if my memory serves me.
The Los Angeles Long Beach Harbor Labor Coalition Parade and Picnic is possibly the best organized and most radical Labor Day event in California, but other there are other events as well, including a Labor Day Picnic sponsored by Alameda County Coalition of Unions, Monday, Sept 2nd, 1130am to 430pm, Alameda Point Park, Alameda. For this and other events in California, just google “California Labor Day 2013.”
The above remarks were put together from various sources. More precise citations are available on request.

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