Happy Labor Day!

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"What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures." So said Samuel Gompers, founder of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881. On the day that we honor working men and women, let's revisit the origins of Labor Day.

Most of us regard Labor Day as the last "hurrah!" of Summer—a three-day weekend to make one final getaway before autumn encroaches, or at least an excuse to fire up the grill one last time. But Labor Day was originally founded in 1882 as not only a celebration (with picnics and parades in New York City's Reservoir Park) for the working man, but also as a public rally to gain support for an eight-hour work day. (Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, it was not unusual for companies to require workers to stay on the job for 10 to 12 hour shifts with no overtime pay.) For the next few years, workers who chose to march in parades on the first Monday in September took the off without pay in order to participate. Oregon was the first state to recognize Labor Day as a legal paid holiday in 1887.

The Pullman Strike

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In 1894 approximately 3,000 workers at Illinois' Pullman Palace Car Company initiated a wildcat strike in protest of recent wage cuts. Rail traffic in Chicago and points west ground to a halt as a result, and President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops in to settle matters, since the strike was interfering with the delivery of U.S. mail. Violence erupted, strikers were killed, and Cleveland received very negative press for his decision. In an effort to appease American workers, he signed a bill in 1894 declaring Labor Day a national holiday.

Labor Unions

American labor unions are almost as old as the nation itself. As early as 1648, the seeds of unionization were planted when coopers (barrel makers) and shoemakers in Boston banded together and formed guilds. The first collective bargaining unit was formed in Philadelphia in 1792, where a group of shoe-makers held regular meetings and collected dues. Not too long afterward, leather workers and carpenters in Boston followed suit, as well as printers in New York City.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2005 15.8 million Americans are dues-paying members of labor unions. California may not be a hotbed of manufacturing, but thanks to Hollywood and the vast array of different people needed to pump out movies and TV shows (including the carpenters that build sets, make-up artists, caterers and other behind-the-scenes workers) that state leads the nation in union membership. It's only logical that Wyoming, as the least populous state in the U.S., is also the state that has the lowest union membership.

Why Are They Called "Teamsters"?

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is one of the largest labor unions in the United States. Have you ever wondered how this group of professional drivers and warehouse workers got their name? It dates back to 1903, when most deliveries were made by horse-drawn wagons. The driver was referred to as a "teamster," because he was teamstersthe one who managed the team that was pulling the load.

Today when the Teamsters are mentioned, the name "Jimmy Hoffa" immediately comes to mind. Hoffa was president of that union from 1958 until 1971, the last four of which he administered while behind bars—he'd been convicted of attempted bribery and jury tampering. He was last seen in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, in 1975. The Red Fox closed in 1996, but in all the intervening years, wait staff reported that not a week went by without at least one customer asking which booth Jimmy Hoffa had sat in that fateful July afternoon.

September 7, 2009 - 3:05am
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