Monday, September 1, 2003

Celebrating workers

Labor Day 2003: Day to rest

Labor Day, said American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers, is unlike any other holiday anywhere in the world.

"All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another," he said.

"Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation."

It is in that spirit, hopefully, that we celebrate today's Labor Day holiday. It is a day devoted to all men and women who work, to celebrating all that they achieve for their families, their community and their nation.

As for the "strife and discord," however, it's instructive that the holiday's origins are connected to key events in America's late 19th century labor struggle.

The first Labor Day celebrations were in the early 1880s. Some say Peter J. McGuire, an AFL co-founder, was the first to propose a day honoring those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold" and drawing attention to the labor movement's issues.

But there's evidence that New York machinist Matthew Maguire made the original proposal in 1882. That's when the city's Central Labor Union, of which he was secretary, celebrated on Sept. 5 with a demonstration and picnic. The union repeated the observance on Sept. 5, 1883, and the idea quickly caught on with labor organizations in other cities.

By 1886, several major cities had given official recognition to the day. The Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886 added urgency to the movement. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to declare Labor Day a holiday, followed by New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and others.

Then came the economic depression of the early 1890s, and the famous Pullman strike of 1893-94, which erupted into violence that killed some protesters and resulted in federal troops being deployed by President Grover Cleveland.

Workers throughout the nation were angered by Cleveland's actions, which also included declaring the strike a federal crime. When the strike ended with the dissolution of the American Railway Union, the Cleveland administration - in the midst of a re-election campaign - looked for a quick, high-profile way to mollify the nation's workers.

The solution: Make Labor Day a national holiday. About two dozen states had already adopted the holiday, so Cleveland gladly signed the bill that was rushed through Congress. He lost the election anyway.

A few years later, Gompers reflected that Labor Day was "the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed . . . that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch sholders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it."

Those are words we should remember today. Labor Day is more than an end-of-summer long weekend, a last chance at the beach or the picnic grounds, an opportunity to jam the highways for sales at the malls.

It is part of the fabric of American history and culture. It is part of our legacy.

Labor facts

• 13.2 percent of the American work force belong to a union.

• 65 percent of Gallup poll participants said in an August survey that they approve of labor unions, while 29 percent said they disapproved. Approval was greatest in the 1950s with 75 percent, and lowest in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with 55 percent.

• 2.2 million workers are paid the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour or less. About half are under age 25.

• U.S. workers logged an average of 1,825 hours last year, more than Canada, 1,778; France, 1,545; and Germany, 1,444. Japan was at the same level as the United States. South Koreans worked 2,447 hours, more than any other country.

• Only a third of American workers are committed to their jobs, motivated and have no intentions of seeking other employment, according to a survey by Walker Information.

• More than eight in 10 workers say the economy is fair or poor, up from 74 percent last fall, according to a survey by Ranstad North America.

• 44 percent of top managers at large companies say the economy is good or excellent, up from 23 percent last fall.

• 73 percent of America's workers say they would trust their boss to baby-sit their children for a night, according to a survey by The Marlin Company.


Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, the International Labour Office.

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