130 Years After Haymarket: The Labor in Labor Day

Labor Day is upon us once again and this one marks 130 years since the event that led to the creation of May Day as the original holiday honoring the workers – The Haymarket “Riot.”  My great-grandfather was there, and when I was a kid my grandfather showed me a shillelagh that he said his father carried there.  Both he and his father were life-long machinists’ union members.  Grampa was apprenticed when he was 10 years old.

Like many of our other holidays, we American’s tend to forget about the real origins and purposes of this special day in favor of a focus on festivities.  We have a lot of picnics, which of course are wonderful, but we fail to recognize the many sacrifices – of blood and treasure, of sweat and tears – that were made and continue to be made so that we can enjoy the quality of life that Americans do.  Not that there is not a great deal of work left to do, but consider that an abridged list of the advances brought to you by the Labor movement would include: paid vacation, overtime pay, the minimum wage, sick days, child labor laws, safety standards, health benefits, unemployment insurance, social security, the 8-hour day (which is what the Haymarket gathering was about), and the weekend.

That’s right, while you are enjoying that hot dog in the back yard this weekend, note that it was the Labor movement who got you the concept of the weekend in the first place.  Note too the many people who continue to work while so many of us do not, to make it safe and fun for us to relax.  Notable among them are police, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders who help keep us safe, not to mention legions of foodservice workers who make your picnics possible.

Here in Johnson County we’ve had some strong recent advances for workers, including the minimum wage increase and the community ID program.  If you are not familiar with the Center for Worker Justice, you ought to be.  There’s still much work to be done though.  In my lifetime, union membership in Iowa has dropped from 27.7 percent to 10.9 percent.  Our current disparity in wealth in this country is a direct result.  That disparity was at its lowest point ever when union membership was at its highest.  That’s no coincidence.

Three and a half decades of union-bashing, from the PATCO strike to WalMart, hase resulted in a population that largely feels that unions are corrupt or outdated or both.  But while it is true that there has been corruption (as there is in any institution), it is baby-with-the-bathwater thinking to believe that we do not need unions now, just as we did 130 years ago.

I hope to see you at the Labor Day Picnic, Monday 9/5, Noon to 4pm at Upper City Park, Shelter 2.