Monday was Labor Day and I hope you had a nice and relaxed time out. I began to wonder what the average American believes that “Labor” Day represents, aside from giving a great many Americans a nice long week-end and marking an unofficial end of summer. I also wonder how many of us connect the holiday to the American and worldwide labor movement, past and present. In fact, how many of us know anything about it at all.
The President announced in a speech to a labor gathering in Milwaukee that he will ask Congress for $50 billion in stimulus money to improve our national infrastructure, which would be for the construction of roads, bridges and an upgraded rail transportation system. I doubt that he will get the money from this Congress and I also doubt that it is the size of the stimulus that most non-conservative economists have been preaching for. However, it was good to hear that the President was in better form. As Bob Herbert wrote in his Tuesday’s NYTimes column, [Here] the President spoke “...in a tone that conveyed both passion and empathy, and left me wondering, ‘Where has this guy been for the past year and a half.’”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that, as of August, our unemployment rate is 9.6% or 14.9 million, which does not include those workers who have simply given up and left the workforce. An interesting statistic is the rise in the number of part-time employees to a total of 8.9 million. The Bureau tells us that these are referred to as “involuntary part-time workers. These individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job.”) An additional 2.4 million folks were counted as part of the labor force but had become discouraged and not looked for work in the four-week period before the survey.
Buried in those disturbing statistics, are other matters of concern that reporters such Bob Herbert have written so feelingly about viz. that the unemployment level of blacks is at 16.3% and teenagers at 26.3%. Unemployment and its accompanying sense that one’s skills and intelligence are not needed by society are a deadly combination. And yet, the Republican Party which says loudly and clearly that unemployment benefits need not be extended because it simply makes folks lazier, apparently is going to get away with their cynicism and will win BIG in the November elections.
Back to our Labor Day history. In the Nineteenth Century the American labor movement was intimately connected with the international workers’ movement in Europe that had arisen in reaction to the labor abuses of the Industrial Revolution. On May 4, 1886 there was a rally with speeches in Haymarket Square in Chicago in support of striking workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. who were fighting for a shorter work week and an 8-hour day. About 2,000 had gathered to listen to speeches. Cold weather had kept the numbers down, but in the midst of the rally, a police officer, disobeying the mayor’s instructions, sent police into the crowd to disperse it.
Someone threw a bomb into the line of police who began wildly firing their pistols. Some of the shots hit their fellow officers. When all was done, seven policemen lay dead, four workers had been killed by the police and 60 more were injured. Eight union members were blamed and convicted of murder and executed, although one convicted worker committed suicide before his execution. The union involved was the Knights of Labor, a militant labor group. Actually, the reaction to the riot played into the hands of the anti-labor forces and delayed the acceptance of an 8-hour day for years.
Also, when it came time to honor the working men and women with a holiday, the first Monday in September was chosen, instead of joining with the international celebration in May, which was thought would evoke and memorialize the Haymarket Riot.
I’ve often felt sorry that we do not have the opportunity to march, even in spirit, in solidarity with American and world-wide working men and women. We’ll discuss this in subsequent postings.
In the meantime, let’s enjoy our Labor Days whenever they are...