A day to honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold'' was how union leader Peter McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, conceptualized Labor Day some 125 years ago, according to the U.S. Labor Department's website.
Labor Day is a good time to reflect on the enormous contributions that unions and working people have made in our society, not just for the goods and great monuments they have created with their backs and their hands, but for the human progress and improved living conditions for which they fought. "The People Who Brought You the Weekend,'' as the bumper sticker says.
Another way to think about it: labor unions and working folks have brought us both growth and justice.
And here's a good story from an essay sent to us this week by Peter Rachleff, the eminent professor of labor history at Macalester College.
In the late 19th century, when the ideology of “the self-made man” was sweeping the United States, propagated by the dime novels of Horatio Alger and the “rags-to-riches” biographies of the likes of Andrew Carnegie, the labor movement put forward a vision of “the group-made man,” the worker whose job description, working conditions, hours and wages were the results of collective struggles and collective bargaining. Rare was the worker, even the most skilled, who imagined that he had the strength to make a favorable deal with the boss on his own.
At the heart of my workshop presentation this summer was the story of the building of the City Hall in Richmond, Virginia, in 1886. The Knights of Labor had petitioned the conservative-dominated City Council that the new hall be built of local materials with local labor, that workers be paid union scale and employed on the eight hour day, and that African American workers be given access to skilled as well as unskilled jobs. When the City Council rebuffed their request, the local Knights organized themselves into the Workingmen’s Reform Party, ran in the spring 1886 municipal elections, and swept to control of the city government. They then oversaw the building of that new City Hall just as they had imagined it.
For me, the icing on the cake was the hand-carved gargoyles which adorned each corner of that handsome building. The stone cutters, Black as well as white, who carved those symbolic faces, who left their handiwork for generations of citizens to appreciate, got their jobs because they had participated in a collective movement. Their opportunity rested on a group effort.
So here's to Labor Day and a celebration of how "we'' are as important as "me."
— Dane Smith