by Jessica Simpkins
“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. Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”
SAMUEL GOMPERS, AN ENGLISH-BORN JEWISH CIGAR-MAKER AND CO-FOUNDER OF THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR (AND PRESIDENT OF THE AFL FROM 1886-1894 AND 1895-1924)
Since this blog is posting on Sept 4th, and we’re trying to be mindful of the meaning of community leading up to our first Block Party at Arte Soleil, I decided to dip my toe into a Labor Day history rabbit hole for inspiration — and really to educate myself on the topic.
I spent my childhood attending Labor Day marches with my dad – a proud union member – in Ohio, and then as a member of my high school marching band with trombone or marching baritone in hand. The band would meet in front of the American Legion Post #455, in our unfortunate summer uniforms of white jeans, navy polo, and shiny black patent Dinkles, and commence along a meandering route through our little town, tooting out as many patriotic marches as we could. But all I really knew about Labor Day is that it’s for Union parades and picnics and backyard parties.
Even though it wasn’t signed into law as a Federal holiday until 1894, as a response to some seriously dark events in our history, the first American Labor Day was celebrated on September 5, 1882, in New York City, a street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community. According to the Department of Labor website, the parade got off to a pathetic start, and nearly disbanded within an hour because of low turn-out- a few dozen stragglers at most, and no band. But, around 10 am, 200 members of the Jeweler’s Union of Newark Two crossed the ferry into NYC, including the Marching Jewelers Band (yes, please!) creating the momentum needed for it to get real. The total number of marchers ended up being 10,000-20,000 men and women.
There was a series of strikes at the Pullman Company Plant outside of Chicago from May to July, 1894. It’s actually the Southside of Chicago now, but at the time it was a company town, owned and administrated by Pullman. The 4,000 American Railway Union (ARU) employees at the plant weren’t allowed to own the homes they lived in. They paid rent and utilities to their employer/landlord. So, when Pullman cut wages by 25% without lowering rent or utilities, paired with poor working conditions and general unrest, and the owner of the company, George Pullman, refused to recognize the protests or arbitrate with the ARU, riots ensued.
All railways west of Detroit, Michigan were basically at a stand-still because the ARU called for a boycott of all trains that towed Pullman cars- and essentially all trains towed Pullman cars. 250,000 ARU workers in 27 states were affected by the boycott. President Grover Cleveland sent the U.S. Army into Chicago in July to restore order. As a result, 37 people were killed, 57 injured, and there was $80 million in damages.
Six days after the end of the protests, legislation for a Federal Labor Day Holiday was pushed through Congress, and signed by Grover Cleveland. He was always against organized labor, but, like any politician, needed good press to help with his re-election campaign.
We each add something of value to our communities, something irreplaceable and unique, that can’t necessarily be articulated as simply as a job-title. Whenever we don’t recognize or respect the contribution of a community member, we all lose.
I hope your Labor Day is fun, safe, and filled with a sense of community and ‘esprit de corps’. And if anyone is interested in forming a Marching Jewelers Band, please get in touch!! We’ll see you at the Block Party on Saturday, September 15th.
Follow the links below to read everything I wasn’t able to fit into this post. Samuel Gompers was a cool surprise.