Labor Day

By Paul Evans of Scappoose, Oregon. Paul is an Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan. He is also a former mayor of Monmouth.

“Labor Day” was first observed, first celebrated as a local affair, in New York City – September 5, 1882.

Twelve years later, Labor Day became a National Holiday. A day that communities were to celebrate with public displays, parades, and a “festival for the workers and families.”

Too often most of us forget how, or more importantly, why, President Cleveland led the effort to nationalize the holiday in 1894.

Labor Day was an important victory – it was an act of reconciliation – it was a national statement that the struggle for worker’s rights would not be easily dismissed, or forgotten.

The late 1800s was a hard, difficult time. In the wake of the Panic of 1893, the economy was in trouble – the industrial revolution had expanded production too rapidly and the nation was in transition.

1893-4 was a time when corporations – so used to ignoring worker’s rights – and doing so without consequence, demanded dramatic concessions from workers that effectively transformed a bad situation into a very bad situation.

In early May 1894, 3000 workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company said enough. In short order nearly 125,000 workers (and their families) in 27 states joined in the effort to demand fairness at the worksite.

Sadly, the Pullman Strike was eventually broken when US Marshals supported by 12,000 US Military troops implemented an unusual, pro-corporation interpretation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

What could have been resolved through compromise, devolved into a schism between corporations and the very people that made corporations relevant.

After the smoke cleared, 13 workers had died, 60 were wounded, and trust – between the US Government and its workers – was gone.

117 years ago, our nation was coming apart at the seams.

In the shadow of the Pullman Strike, organized labor reinvented itself, retooled its strategy and tactics, and pursued an ongoing commitment to defend the dignity of labor, to protect the rights of working Americans, and to be a partner in the development of our national economy.

This Labor Day, it is especially important for us all to set-aside a moment – and consider the world as it would be – without an effective labor movement.

Since its inception, organized labor has been the most successful counterpoint to corporate development. We must remember that the court decisions during the 1880s-1890s gave “personhood” to corporations, and vastly expanded the influence of industry.

Without labor as an advocate for the values of work, fairness, and justice in the workplace – America would be less than we are, less than we can become.

The creative tension between corporate and labor values created the most prosperous, powerful nation in history.

Competition strengthens the spirit; clashing ideas challenges established paradigms – it allows for thinking that otherwise could not occur.

Remember that American innovation and productivity are unsurpassed in the world market – neither Asia nor Europe can beat us on the development of new, reality changing products.

Remember that the social safety net – now in the crosshairs of a class of partisans that have forgotten American values – is largely the result of the hard work and dedication of working Americans.

The Labor Movement was not – is not – only about specific issues associated with a specific place: it is a struggle for human dignity, a journey for all that understand work is a value.

Even now, as we struggle against decline, we must recognize that our future will be determined by a new strategy for success in the global economy: a strategy jointly developed by all of us – corporations, government, and Labor.

We have come a long way, but there is a lot more for us – all of us – to do.

Together we will not fail, apart we will not succeed. We must recognize the evolving marketplace and develop adaptive measures to maintain the dignity of work, even as we strive to regain our step within the gauntlet of global trade.

I am proud of my ties to AFT-Oregon, the Oregon Education Association, and the family and friends of labor. I salute their willingness to defend the worker – even when doing so isn’t always easy, or fun.

I truly believe that America is better because of the sacrifices made, the hard work that continues, and that we will emerge from this economic transition even stronger because of the creative tension – only possible – when Labor is engaged.

Enjoy this Labor Day, and celebrate the value of Labor.

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    In most of the rest of the world, Labor Day is celebrated on May 1st, to commemorate the murder of striking Americans in the Haymarket massacre of 1886 in Chicago. In this country, business and government - with the cooperation of organized labor! - have conspired to keep May 1st from being celebrated as Labor Day in this country. First it became "Americanization Day" (1921), then "Loyalty Day" (1958), and now "Law Day" (1961). Rich in irony, isn't it?

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    Paul, thanks for your service.

    both the Hayarket and Pullman strike were watershed events in US Labor history. However, if we are going to bring up historical events, lets keep the perspective.

    at Pullman, the formerly recognized beneficial owner had been forced to lay off a third of his workforce. The strike was non-violent until eugen Debs and his United Railway workers got onvolved and embargoed all Pullman cars. There were also 2 separate incidents of striker violence and fires a few days before the federal troops were called in. Debs, later served a prison sentance for other labor violence activities.

    Haymarket was also prompted by striking worker sympathizers in the form of the International Working People's Association attacking the McCormick Harvester Company. A few days later at a very peaceful demonstration, anarchists belonging to IWPA threw a pipe bomb (hence the term bomb throwing anarchist) at the Chicogo police line present causing the infamous riot.

    The US Labor struggle and movement is not without bad actors and ill will on both sides. As we celebrate Labor Day, lets also remember that as a nation we have all grown and matured.

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    As a further example, Henry Ford, the inventor of the assembly line and also famous for giving his workers the pay of $5/day also implemented the first company Labor Relations department. It was little more than Pinkertons and thugs designed to spy on shop floor employees and their familes. The infamous battle of the Overpass took place at the sprawling River Rouge plant in 1937 because Ford sent out stongmen to beat union organizers. ford steadfastly refused to consider collective bargaining until 1940, a full 5 years after passage of the Wagner Act and 3 years after recognition of the UAW by GM and Chrysler.

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