The first Monday in September, Labor Day, is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers, including the quantities of blood, sweat and tears they have shed in their contributions to the strength, prosperity, and Gross National Product of the United States. (As a person who once spent a summer as a card-carrying member of the United Steelworkers' Union, I can testify to the amount of sweat shed.)
Depending on what you read, this holiday for workers was the brainchild of either Peter J. McGuire, a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, or Matthew Maguire, a machinist and later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists. (I can see how they might be confused!)
The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, sponsored by its Central Labor Union. In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, and the Central Labor Union urged labor organizations in other cities to follow their example and celebrate a "workingmen's holiday." The idea spread with the growth of the labor movement, and in 1885, Labor Day was celebrated in many cities with strong industrial bases across the country. On June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
Lately labor unions have been under attack by various factions in the U.S.
political galaxy so it might be time to take a moment or two to read more about
the history of labor in this country in order to fully appreciate the journey
and the struggle of our predecessors. What better way to do that but with a well-written piece of nonfiction?!?
There is Power in a Union
Philip Dray (Doubleday, 2010)
From Lowell to Ludlow, from Haymarket Square to the ill-fated 1981 PATCO strike, the history of the labor movement has indeed been an epic journey and Dray captures it all in a crisp narrative that highlights vivid characters and dramatic scenes. Heroes, scoundrels, shining moments and scandals, the story of labor is the story of America, and it brought to life in the hands of a fine writer, who presents an even-handed account, although it is clear where his sympathies lie.
The Battle of Blair Mountain
Robert Shogan (Westview Press, 2004)
The violent nationwide Great Railroad Strike of 1877 may have involved more workers, but the Battle of Blair Mountain, WV, in August 1921 was the largest armed labor uprising in the United States. Nearly 10,000 white and black coal miners of the United Mine Workers of America attacked 3000 pro-coal company men. Here is a riveting tale of dissent, human rights, ancient enmities (a Hatfield of that infamous family is in the mix), and the threat of federal troops attacking citizens.
The Man Who Never Died
William M. Adler (Bloomsbury, 2011)
Inspiration to songwriters from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Joe Hill was a labor activist who became a legend. In 1915, Hill was executed in Utah for a murder it remains doubtful he committed. A proud member of the Industrial Workers of the World (colloquially known as "the Wobblies"), the most radical union of the early 20th Century, Hill was known for his humorous yet aggressive protest songs. Set to popular tunes and featured in the IWW's Little Red Songbook, they were pointed attacks on the establishment. Hill's famous "The Preacher and the Slave" mocks the hypocrisy of offering spiritual advice before worldly sustenance and introduced into the American lexicon the phrase "pie in the sky." Adler has scoured newspapers, archival sources, and related significant biographies to bring Hill's story to life and to deliver the man behind the myth.
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