Some Thoughts on Labor Day

Today is our celebration of the Labor Movement and the value of the workers who built and continue to maintain America. As a holiday, it has an interesting political history and looking at the 127 years it has been celebrated we see stark changes that have been made in the relationship between the government and labor.

As I have for the last few Labor Days, I am thinking about what happened in the U.S.A, and how our economy has changed since my younger days.  In recent years (the last quarter century) the power of the Labor Movement has been so considerably weakened that our economy has become a disaster for the ordinary worker and an outrageous success for the 1% or less of the richest Americans... and we can attach the downward swirl of labor to the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.

"Republican presidents never have had much regard for unions, which almost invariably have opposed their election. But until Reagan, no GOP president had dared to challenge labor's firm legal standing, gained through Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the mid-1930s." - Dick Meister, who co-authored a history of farm labor,
"A Long Time Coming," published by Macmillan.

Reagan, oddly enough, had been a union president, head of the Screen Actors' Guild. Meister points out that:

"...he was notoriously pro-management, leading the way to a strike-ending agreement in 1959 that greatly weakened the union and finally resigning under membership pressure before his term ended.
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Reagan gave dedicated union foes direct control of the federal agencies that were designed originally to protect and further the rights and interests of workers and their unions."

As President of the United States, Reagan's major labor action was breaking the PATCO strike in 1981. By destroying the air Traffic Controllers' union, Reagan sent (according to Washington Post columnist Harold Myerson)
"an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employers got that message loud and clear -- illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps who could not, shipping factories and jobs abroad."

Reagan's major move was to elevate the "wealth creators"(ie: the top corporate level ownership and management) well above the working class (ie: the rest of us). The fact that he did this with the incredible support of the labor class he was eventually weakening is amazing.

Today's Salon has an interesting article on the relationship of the two classes and the results that legislation has made:

"The wealth creators, according to the conservative press, are constantly being threatened from above by government, which seeks to destroy wealth by taxation, and from below by workers, particularly those organized into unions, who threaten to destroy wealth by insisting that capitalists share a decent amount of their profits with employees. The entire basis of conservative "trickle-down" economics is the idea that the economy will grow faster if the supposed wealth creators keep more of the profits of private enterprise, with less going to taxes and worker compensation.

If you believe this theory, then Labor Day should be a cause for national mourning. We should all pause to mourn the loss of capital that might have gone to a fifth or a sixth mansion or a private jet, but instead was conscripted against its will to pay for a public school or higher wages in a factory."


This is a different view of the labor/capital relationship than what was present in 1882 when Labor Day originated. According to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, the first Labor Day in the United States was celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City.
Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold."

But Peter McGuire's place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.


The importance of labor goes back even further to Lincoln's administration. Lincoln stated in his campaign for the presidency that:
"Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not existed."

So, you see that one of the earliest Republicans had a view of labor that differs greatly from Reagan, or Bush 1 or 2.
The Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886, and subsequent labor conflicts in mines and other places which brought out both police and US soldiers to battle laborers, led to the official designation of the Labor Day holiday in 1894. In a feature on the Origins of Labor Day, PBS points out that:
In the aftermath of the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the US military and US Marshals during the 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland put reconciliation with Labor as a top political priority. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike.

Brendan Koerner, in a Slate article, says why Labor Day was set as the first Monday in September, instead of on May 1st, which had become the worker's day in Europe:
Cleveland was also concerned that aligning a US labor holiday with existing international May Day celebrations would stir up negative emotions linked to the Haymarket Affair.

And, of course, May Day was and is associated primarily with Socialism and Communism in our country, the two "isms" which conservative administrations and current Republican competition with the existing government has made into dirty words.

So here we are at this point in time, getting a day off from work, attending parades and picnics (mine is down at Morgan Grove Park in Shepherdstown this afternoon) and no longer really celebrating the dynamics of labor that made us a successful country in the fifties, sixties and seventies. I hope you have a good one.

Under The LobsterScope

Tags: Capital, history, Labor, Labor Day, Reagan, thoughts (all tags)

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