Labor Day, to most people, is little more than the end of summer. Labor
Day commemorates the labor union movement, the demand for an eight hour
work day, better working conditions, fair wages and an end to child
In 1894 Labor Day became a federal holiday celebrated as a
"workingman's holiday" on the first Monday of September honoring the
contributions of working men and women to America.
While labor unions were organizing in the 1870's, small farmers,
through the Grange Movement were trying to break the power of the
railroads, the meat packers and the grain milling interests. Mary
Elizabeth Lease urged the farmers to "raise less corn and more hell",
but farmers could never unite as the labor unions had.
In the mid-1960's, farm worker organizers Cesar Chavez and Dolores
Huerta formed the United Farm Workers (UFW). When the UFW's table grape
boycott brought the plight of the farm workers onto the national stage,
Dolores Huerta connected the feminist movement and gender rights with
the farm worker movement. And why not? Women worked the fields along
side the men.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) organized in 1925 became
the first African-American union to join the American Federation of
Labor. Many of those involved in BSCP became leaders in the civil
Gender equality, racial equality, fair farm prices and farm worker
rights were separate issues but all related to the struggle of the
unions for a fair wage and decent working conditions. Labor unions may
have initially been all white and all male but, that changed.
Unions were never about the individual, they were about everyone. If
one is oppressed, all are oppressed. Labor unions recognized the need
to bring everyone into the struggle regardless of color or gender,
because the struggle was about everyone.
Now, generations after the early struggles of labor unions,
corporations have done their best to de-unionize America. Exporting
jobs, closing union factories and union busting have taken their toll
on jobs, wages and the economy in general.
Whether it was exploitation from the "Robber Barron's" of the
nineteenth century, the segregationists of the Jim Crow South, the
growers who exploit migrant farm laborers, the agribusiness interests
that squeeze and impoverish small farmers or the corporate mentality
that suppresses women with a glass ceiling, the parallels are pointedly
Labor unions, suffragists, feminists, civil rights advocates, small
farmers and farm workers all struggle against the rich, the powerful
and the corporate interests who intend to control the economy and
maintain their notion of social class. The labor movement was, and
still is, a reflection of society. They challenged the idea, that power
and money are the trump card.
Everyone, owes a debt to the laborers. Those who often put their lives
on the line, for safe work places, an eight hour work day, a five day
work week, insurance, disability benefits, a fair wage, dignity and
respect for manual labor.
Labor Day is a day to celebrate the power of the worker, but no less
the social movements that evolved with and from the unions. It is also
a day to reflect on how we can do better, for everyone.