Like most Americans, I do not plan to be working Monday. I will refrain from labor on my day off. Many people, though, who see it as time away from their jobs likely do not know the reasons as to why we celebrate Labor Day and think of it, as I sometimes do, as merely a day of respite.
We truly owe much to those workers—and activists—who made a contribution to the strength and prosperity of our country. Of late, I hear some criticism of those who choose to be involved in social protest. However, if not for those who were willing to stand up for their rights and for the rights of others through social protest, we might not have been afforded some of the freedoms we enjoy today in the workplace.
In the 19th century, working conditions did not adhere to the same standards they do today. In the apex of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, a 12-hour workday was common, as were 7-day workweeks. Some mills employed children as young as five or six years old, paying them only a portion of the wages adults earned for the same labor. Unsafe working conditions, namely the lack of breaks and sanitary facilities, abounded, especially among the lower socioeconomic classes, which included immigrants and the impoverished.
As agriculture gave way to industry in America, labor unions grew more prominent. Working class Americans began to organize in order to establish a collective voice against the authoritarian approach imposed upon them by their superiors. Workers learned that striking provided a way to make headway with employers when they did not see eye to eye.
In 1886, one such strike turned deadly. On May 4, in Haymarket Square in Chicago, a protest organized to obtain an eight-hour work day went awry when an anonymous person lobbed a stick of dynamite at police, killing seven police officers and four civilians, and wounding numerous others. The event became known as the notorious Haymarket Affair.
This momentous event had a significant impact on the labor movement, as did the Pullman Palace Car Company strike, which also occurred in Chicago in May 1894. George Pullman, the owner, had increased working hours and cut wages and jobs. In response, Eugene V. Debs, who later became the founder of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, signed many of those disgruntled workers into the American Railway Union, one of the country’s first industrial unions, and spurred the nationwide Pullman strike, which impacted transportation across the U.S. at the time. In the end, Pullman turned to the federal government to break the strike and propel trains into moving once again.
In 1894, the same year as the Pullman strike, Labor Day was recognized as a federal holiday by Congress. Many gave credit for the recognition to Peter McGuire, who made way for the creation of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), while others acknowledged Matthew McGuire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, as the initial proposer. The holiday became a landmark in the movement for labor rights, celebrated by picnics, parades, and other public gatherings.
On this Labor Day, we should commemorate another champion of the working class, one who could also teach us much about labor rights, as some of those rights seem again to be under assault. In his speech “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington on March 31, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King discounts overreliance on the “bootstrap mentality” when he says, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
Labor unions, which Pope Francis recently called “prophetic” institutions that "give voice to those who have none,” and which we celebrate this Labor Day, offer a solution to those often “bootless” folk fighting to rise above the restrictions that inhibit their plight in the attempt to achieve the American Dream.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and is a consultant for the Tennessee Department of Education. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)