Sep 5, 2016
“Labor Day” – it’s an official holiday, given to workers by the federal government 122 years ago. So they say – those people who are always saying things.
In fact, Labor Day was at its very beginning imposed by anonymous groups of workers who put down their tools on September 5 of 1882, the first Monday in that September. Leaving work, they marched from City Hall to Union Square, taking for themselves a “workingmen’s holiday.”
This action didn’t come out of the blue. It was NOT the work of politicians. It was a reflection of the agitation then growing for a shorter work week – within and outside union ranks. With work hours commonly standing at 12 a day, often for seven days a week, and with high levels of unemployment, the obvious answer was to cut hours of work. Shorter hours for those with a job could mean more hours of work for those without – but only if wages were raised for everyone at the same time.
This was the situation in which those anonymous New York City workers imposed shorter hours, even if only for one day. Their one-day protest spread, with “workingmen’s holidays” popping up on the first Monday in subsequent Septembers, sometimes at the instigation of unions, sometimes as near spontaneous actions.
In May of 1894, nearly twelve years after the original “workingmen’s holiday,” workers faced federal troops in Chicago during a bitter railway strike. “Rioting, insurrection” – those were the words the politicians used then against the workers.
Having ordered troops to Chicago, having given them license to “shoot to kill,” Democratic President Grover Cleveland took time out to sign a proclamation issued by Congress declaring the first Monday in September an official holiday, “Labor’s Day.” And then he turned right back around and pushed for state authorities to imprison Eugene Debs and other leaders of the railway strike on “criminal syndicalism” charges.
A lot may have changed since 1882, but no matter how much, certain things remain the same. The politicians can’t be trusted. Their declarations of friendship are only declarations – behind which lurk vicious actions.
There are still too many of us working for too many hours while others of us aren’t working at all. And with so many people on the street without a job, wages for everyone still suffer.
The answers that working people would give, if they were mobilized to impose their own answers, are still the same: spread out the hours of work, so that everyone who wants to work has a job, and push wages high enough so that is possible.
Of course, we are working for fewer hours than in 1882 – but not a lot fewer! Our wages are higher, but not so much higher that most of us can live comfortably.
But one fact remains absolutely the same: whatever improvements working people got, whatever we will ever get, come only as the result of our own struggles.