Over the weekend, I watched The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington as professor, poet, and activist Melvin Tolson. The film takes place in 1935 in Marshall, Texas. One of the threads in the film is Tolson's work to create a sharecropper's union in Texas made up of both black and white farmers. For his work with the union, Tolson is called a communist and blacklisted from many universities. Watching the film over Labor Day weekend made me reflect on the importance of this holiday and our union history.
Although Labor Day is often seen as the end of summer, with parades and barbeques and the promise of children returning to school (if they haven’t already), the history of the holiday is more important to what it means to be an American worker. Labor Day celebrates our workers, their achievements and history. Labor Day celebrates the work of our unions.
In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, child labor, long work days, and unsafe working conditions were the norm for American workers. Manufacturing production became more prominent than agricultural production, and with the shift of workers toward manufacturing labor, there was the rise of unions, working to create safe and humanitarian working environments for workers.
The first Labor Day parade in the United States took place in New York City on September 5,1882, when 10,000 workers gathered and marched from City Hall to Union Square as part of a labor festival. Other workers across the country followed suit, but it wasn’t until 1894 that Labor Day became an official American holiday.
It was the Pullman workers’ strike, which started on May 11, 1894, that signified the importance of the observance of Labor Day in the United States. And, it was not without blood. Led by Eugene V. Debs, the American Railroad Union and as many as 250,000 workers across 27 states joined the Pullman workers refusing to operate Pullman rail cars. Rail industry shutdown, including interruption of mail services, caused a national crisis and Labor Day was declared a national holiday by Grover Cleveland and Congress.
Yet, days later Cleveland put into law the Sherman Antitrust Act and sent in federal troops to break the strike. There were days of riots, with railcars being burned and violence from federal troops. In the end accounts state between 12 to 30 workers were killed before the strikers were dispersed and the trains ran again. The aftermath of the Pullman workers strike was not a pretty one. But, because of the sacrifices of the Pullman Strikers, there was a heightened awareness of class inequities across the United States and minimum wage and overtime pay became part of the American workplace.
It was the unions that established Labor Day. The workers came together, collectively, to make their lives and those lives of other workers safer. The unions protected workers from abuses, whether individuals were members of the union or not. It was the workers and the unions who died in order for individuals to have safer working conditions. It was these decades of organized labor and protests that now allow American workers opportunities not available only 100 years ago. 40-hour work weeks and paid leave are due to those labor protests and labor unions.
Yet, in 2017 we continue to argue that unions are problematic. We believe that individuals should not have the right to come together and collectively ask for their rights as workers and laborers. We complain about the money that unions take from paychecks or the belief that unions are outside groups coming in to take over the workplace. In fact, unions are made up of workers. They are a way for workers to organize together for their rights and job security. They are a way to bring people together to stand for issues that matter for workers. Through freedom of assembly an free speech, unions are democracy in action.
Unions allow workers and their bosses to sit down together and create contracts that give everyone security and rights. Unions do not close down companies. In fact, unions decrease turnover and increase efficiency, creating better and safer workplaces for all. Unions continue to allow workers to have better wages and benefits, even if they are not Union members. States with unions see higher wages, job security, safety, and better benefits for all workers.
It is because of unions we have parental leave, lunch breaks, overtime pay, pensions and sick leave. These benefits are the results of collective bargaining, of workers coming together. It is because of my union that as a woman my paycheck is the same as my male colleagues. Unions reduce the pay gap based on gender and race. Unions create competition among companies to offer better pay and benefits to their workers. Workers are seen as people with rights. Workers are valued. Unions give workers power, dignity and a say in their futures.
We often don’t think of Labor Day as a bloody holiday. We think of the day off, barbeques, travel plans, and relaxation. But as you think about Labor Day, of parades and time off, think about the workers that made that possible and the ways in which those workers’ sacrifices have made your working conditions better.
Rebekah Buchanan is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.