Honoring working people

This past Monday, in celebration of Labor Day, thousands of inner tubes and rubber rafts floated down the Sacramento River. Bidwell Park was busy with dog-walkers, baby-joggers, bicyclists and power striders. Beer flowed, barbeques smoked.

Hot sunny weather on this no-work Monday made it easy for us to forget our workaday lives. But on Labor Day, more than any other national celebration, the reason for the time off work gets lost—even the local super patriots who normally unfurl hundreds of American flags along our avenues and streets on certain holidays don’t bother to do so on this weekend.

Labor Day, a toast to the sweat and toil of the American worker, was launched in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland during an election year. It wasn’t the most auspicious of beginnings. Cleveland created Labor Day hoping to appease workers angered by his harsh methods for stopping strikes. A few weeks earlier he had declared a railroad strike a federal crime and used 12,000 troops to break it. U.S. deputy marshals fired on protesters just outside Chicago, and two protesters—as well as the strike—were killed.

Cleveland was not re-elected, but the American Railway Union was disbanded. Soon, with the exception of the American Federation of Labor, workers’ unions were effectively snuffed out and remained so until the Great Depression, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed legislation—part of the New Deal—that allowed and encouraged unions to prosper. By the 1950s, nearly 50 percent of America’s workers belonged to unions. As much as anything else, their new economic clout drove the engine of post-World War II prosperity.

It didn’t last. Today, in the wake of the anti-union Reagan administration, fewer than 15 percent of American workers belong to unions. The days when a skilled factory worker could make enough money to buy a house are nearly over, and too many workers who once made good incomes are now employed at Wal-Mart wages.

So, while it was fine to enjoy this last holiday of the summer, let’s not forget the reasons it was created: to celebrate the contributions of American workers.