Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day? Interview with Peter Dreier


David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.

Striking Teamsters clashing with police in Minneapolis, 1934. Credit: National Archives

Peter Dreier is is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century. I talked with Professor Dreier over the phone about his book, the origins of Labor Day, and the future of the labor movement.

Why don't we celebrate Labor Day on the first of May, like they do in so many other countries?

Well, May Day is International Worker's Day and it was originally born out of the movement for the eight-hour day after the Civil War, during the Gilded Age. The predecessor of the AFL, the Knights of Labor, passed a resolution at a meeting saying that there should be an eight-hour day and a legal holiday after May 1, 1886. On that day, May 1, 1886, there were strikes and large-scale demonstrations all over the country and half a million people were in the streets marching in solidarity in Chicago. and then four days later at a rally outside of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, the famous Haymarket massacre occurred. The taint of the Haymarket riot, as it was called, began to be associated with May Day, so within a few years, even though radicals and union groups around the world had established May Day as the international working man's holiday, it didn't take hold in the United States.

In 1887, Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday, so it really began in the nineteenth century. Some of the people in my book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, such as Eugene Debs, were involved in the labor movement in the nineteenth century. In 1894, Debs led the famous Pullman strike, which demanded lower rents on company housing (the Pullman Car Company, the manufacturer of most of the rail cars in the United States, owned the houses where their workers were forced to live) and for higher wages. Railroad workers all across the country boycotted the trains that had Pullman cars, which paralyzed the whole country, including the mail service. Grover Cleveland was president at the time, and he declared that the strike was a federal crime because of the disruption of the post, and he called out 12,000 soldiers to break the strike. So six days after the strike violently ended -- thirteen strikers ended up getting killed -- President Cleveland signed a bill creating Labor Day as the official national holiday in September. So that's how it got started!

Since then, Labor Day has been reserved for parades and picnics and speeches sponsored by unions in major cities, but in the last decade -- I wrote an article about this for The Nation -- May Day has become an immigrant workers' day. The immigrant rights movement has used May Day as a an opportunity to voice their views about the role of immigrants and immigrant workers. But back to Labor Day -- since the 1970s, the labor movement, has not used Labor Day very effectively as a way to promote itself and to promote its role as a voice for working people. But there's still a big rally in Los Angeles, and in fact that's where I'll be on Labor Day. Every Labor Day I go with my family to the big Labor Day parade and picnic in Los Angeles -- LA has a very vibrant and active labor movement drawing a lot on the energy of immigrant workers, and it also has Teamsters -- there are a lot of immigrant Teamsters -- schoolteachers, janitors, truck drivers, and migrant workers.

But for most Americans Labor Day is just a three-day weekend, and most don't understand or think about why we have the weekend in the first place -- not just the Labor Day weekend, but the idea of the weekend. When I talk about this to my students, a lot of them think, “oh, the weekend, that comes from the Bible, that you should rest on the seventh day,” but in terms of making it a feature of America's daily life, the weekend was the product of unions fighting for the eight-hour day and forty-hour week. And even though Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in other countries, most Americans still take the weekend off and use it as an opportunity for relaxing. And they don't realize, like the bumper sticker says, that the labor movement are the people who brought you the weekend.

Is there a way for organized labor on a national level to reclaim Labor Day? It's interesting that you talk about the infusion of immigrants as one of the catalysts for the continued strength of the Los Angeles labor movement. I've been to labor rallies across the country, and aside from public-sector employees, it's really... it's not encouraging out there for organized labor.

Well, I think the big issue is how the labor movement can rebuild itself. And Labor Day might be one tactic towards that -- for example, I wrote an op-ed piece in the Huffington Post on Friday called, “Look for the Union Label for Your Labor Day BBQ,” and I listed the companies that sell grills, hot dogs, ketchup, mustard, hot dog buns, pickles who are union companies. And there's a new website called Labor411.org created by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor because looking for the union label these days means more than just looking for union-made clothing. Cell phone companies like Verizon, airlines, hospitals, insurance companies, lots of consumer products, hotels -- if you take a vacation, you should stay in a union hotel, if you belong to an organization that has conferences and meetings, you should do it in a union hotel. The sector of the labor movement that needs to be organized now is not just the public sector, but the sector that's immobile, that's what people call sticky capital.

The service industry.

You can't move hotels, you can't move hospitals, you can't move utilities. If the labor movement is to have a future, it's going to have to change its organizing and political strategy and focus on bigger and different targets than those in its heyday.

Labor law reform of some kind would certainly be a catalyst. 1978, when Jimmy Carter was president, was the last time there was a chance for labor law reform before Obama was elected -- you know, American labor laws are so much tilted in favor of business, which making it almost impossible for unions to win National Labor Relations Board elections. It happens, but it's very, very difficult. So in 1978, the Senate was one vote away from labor law reform, and there was one senator from Arkansas, Dale Bumpers, a Democrat, who cast the deciding vote against labor law reform. Carter didn't lobby for it, because Carter had no interest in unions -- he came from an anti-union state.

The defeat of labor law reform in 1978 was a turning point that allowed Reagan to kill the PATCO strike a couple of years later and really signaled the decline of the labor movement's political clout and capacity for organizing. Now, there have been a couple of major organizing victories since then. A couple of years ago, a thousand workers at the Smithfield Foods processing plant in North Carolina won a union election. Here in Los Angeles, 75,000 home care workers were organized by the Service Employees International Union, and there have been victories in the hotel industry and others, but it hasn't kept pace with the growth of the economy, so the percentage of workers in unions has declined. If Eugene Debs were alive today, or Walter Reuther, who is one of the heroes of my book, or some of the other labor leaders I talk about in my book, they wouldn't recognize the labor movement.

Let me jump in here and let's do a hypothetical. What would Eugene Debs or Walter Reuther do if they were alive today?

Well, I think unions have to spend a much bigger portion of their budget and the dues of their members in organizing. That was the big hope that when John Sweeney was elected as the head of the AFL-CIO back in the '90s, and a couple of unions -- particularly SEIU and the hotel workers union -- did that and it's paid off. Those are the two fastest-growing unions in the country. The architecture of the labor movement needs to be re-structured -- there are too many small unions, and the union movement hasn't reorganized itself to parallel the changes in the economy.

Eugene Debs's big epiphany was the importance of the industrial labor movement. When he first started off, he was a leader of the railroad firemen's union, and he quickly saw that you couldn't have an effective union just with one craft within the railroads, because they could be easily crushed if everyone else was going to work. The railroad industry leaders were more than happy to use the government and hired thugs and Pinkertons to crush the labor movement. Debs had the insight that the labor movement had to look like the industries it was organizing against. This meant you had to build a vertical and a horizontal labor movement that could attack the railroads.

Reuther's genius was to recognize that if you're going to build a labor movement -- in his case, United Auto Workers -- in the biggest industry in the country -- the automobile industry -- you started with not just people who worked in the auto plants, but the people who worked in the suppliers -- brakes, tires, et cetera. Reuther's other insight was that the labor movement had to be a social movement. And Sidney Hillman, the head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the ACW. He and Reuther were partners. They understood that the labor movement had to be effective at building a broader movement for social justice, not just a movement on the job. The ACW built affordable houses for their members -- co-ops in New York City. You could take a vacation at an ACW resort, and the UAW did that later. Port Huron, where the Port Huron statement was written by Tom Hayden in 1962 and Students for a Democratic Society had its first big meeting -- Port Huron was a UAW resort. You could buy insurance from the ACW, you could go to classes that the ACW and the UAW held, you could go to summer camp to play in baseball leagues sponsored by the unions, and of course you'd work for candidates running for city council and the school board and Congress who were backed by the unions -- first Hillman and then Reuther helped to build the political arm of the labor movement.

Looking back, you might think it's a great irony, but the first political action committee, the first PAC, was a union PAC that Sidney Hillman started in the 1930s to back Roosevelt. They realized it wasn't going to be union money -- unions didn't have enough money -- it was a PAC to mobilize union members to work in the campaigns and then to get their fellow union members and their families to vote for pro-labor candidates. There are still some important legacies from the labor movement as a social movement, rather than just a movement for better wages and improved working conditions. The other important thing about Reuther: Reuther was a huge advocate of cutting the defense budget and putting the money into social programs and education. He was the founder of the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, the organization against nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race, and he was also an early environmentalist. He once had this great quote (and I'm paraphrasing here), "What good is it to get a raise on the job and be able to spend your weekend at the lake if the lake is polluted?"

Reuther also understood the interconnections between the labor movement and women's rights and civil rights. It was Reuther and the UAW and the ACW who basically funded the March on Washington in 1963. They were also the major unions that supported the civil rights movement. Reuther introduced Bobby Kennedy and Cesar Chavez, and Reuther was a very early supporter and advocate, long before the rest of the labor movement, of helping the farm workers to organize in the California fields. So, Reuther's legacy remains even though the labor movement itself is... I wouldn't say it's on death's door, but it's gasping for breath.

In your book, you've listed a lot of cultural icons -- Woody Guthrie, Jackie Robinson, et cetera. What role does culture play in building a sustained progressive movement?

There are three kinds of people in my book -- the first group are organizers and activists. People who mobilize others in the workplaces, in their communities, in politics. This includes folks like Debs, Hillman, and a lot of people who were involved in the labor movement even if they weren't directly organizers, and that includes Jane Addams, who hosted a lot of meetings and was a facilitator of labor organizing out of Hull House. She coordinated closely with Debs and other labor leaders in Chicago. And one of my favorite people in the book is Florence Kelley, who probably more than anyone is responsible for minimum wage laws and child labor laws. She was later the founding member of the National Consumers League, which is this unsung organization that deserves to be better known. The whole idea of the union label and consumers playing a role in promoting better workplaces really came out of Florence Kelley. Eleanor Roosevelt herself became politicized through her work at the National Consumers League.

The second group of people are politicians, people who had to translate the radical ideas of these movements into legislation and public policy, and they were often allies of the progressive movement. Robert Wagner was probably the most obvious one, but there were many many others. Tom Johnson, the great mayor of Cleveland, prevented the Cleveland police from breaking strikes. Other progressive mayors, often called sewer socialists, did the same thing.

The third group -- to directly answer your question -- were people who inspire us with their ideas, help us think about a better world, make us feel that a better world is possible, inspire us to get off our asses and join causes, and give us a sense of hope. This group include writers, playwrights, artists, painters, and musicians. Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen are all in the book -- as are athletes, what I call jocks for justice. Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Billie Jean King. People don't realize how important Billie Jean King was to the women's rights movement and to Title IX. She took enormous risks. All three used their profile as celebrity athletes to promote social and economic justice: Jackie Robinson for civil rights, Muhammad Ali against the war in Vietnam, and Billie Jean King for women's rights and later, when she came out as a lesbian, for gay rights.

Woody Guthrie, for his part, is really the nation's unofficial troubadour -- everybody knows "This Land is Your Land." It really should be our national anthem. In some ways it's already our unofficial national anthem. More people know how to sing "This Land is Your Land" than probably know the "Star-Spangled Banner." Plus, it's easier to sing, and it's more fun.

I learned it in the third grade. It was part of the curriculum.

Yeah. And Pete Seeger -- I've got to mention Pete Seeger, I've written a couple of articles about him that will appear in the New York Daily News in a couple of days arguing that Pete Seeger should get the Nobel Peace Prize (I've also written about this for the Huffington Post). Pete Seeger has brought people around the world together -- he was out there with Will Geer and Woody Guthrie singing songs for the cannery workers and the farm workers in California in the 1930s, he was out there with the civil rights movement, he was one of the key inspirations for the environmentalist movement, the Clear Water Project. Seeger was an enormously brave and influential person who inspired not only the folk revival, but also created a movement, a folk song movement that was the inspiration for civil rights. He was the one, along with a guy named Guy Carawan, who heard this song from some tobacco workers in North Carolina, who were singing a Negro spiritual called "I'll Overcome Someday." And Pete Seeger and Carawan changed the words to "We Shall Overcome."

What's the future, then, for the labor movement?

Today’s labor movement faces tough times, but there are examples of innovative and effective organizing that give me hope that the movement can revitalize itself.

In the final chapter of my book, I discuss some of this hopeful signs. One of them is the work of Ai-Jen Poo and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. They organize housekeepers, nannies, and other domestic workers and have won several significant victories, including statewide laws in New York and California, both called “domestic workers bill of rights,” that protect them from lots of abuses and grant them rights they don’t have now under federal labor laws. Another is the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, led by Lucas Benitez, the Cesar Chavez of the twenty-first century. CIW is organizing Florida’s pickers and has forged effective coalitions with consumer groups and churches to force the big corporate growers to improve wages and working conditions for these immigrant farmworkers, almost doubling their wages and protecting them from unhealthy working conditions. Rose Ann DeMoro is executive director of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC). They’ve won major union organizing victories at hospitals across the country, not only improving pay and conditions for nurses, but also improving health conditions for hospital patients. They are a militant, aggressive union that knows how to organize in a difficult industry. Maria Elena Durazo, the feisty head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, has been a remarkable leader, a catalyst for the immigrant workers movement, a shrewd political strategist, and an inspiring leader. They’ve helped elect dozens of pro-labor public officials and they’ve built bridges with community groups, environmental and public health groups, and religious groups around social justice issues. One of Maria Elena’s brilliant ideas was the formation of LAANE, which for seventeen years has been an effective policy think tank and community activist group that has passed a local “living wage” law, helped clean up the filthy LA port, and helped bring grocery stores to low-income, under-served neighborhoods.

Pete Seeger’s song says “its always darkest before the dawn” and I think the labor movement has now reached a point where its possible to turn things around. That’s my Labor Day message!

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