Labor Day's Striking History
by Rozie Yeghiazarian | published Sep. 8th, 2017
"As we approach this Labor Day, the American public and its unions, what's left of them, are facing a severe crisis of whether we will not only continue to fight for better wages and better working conditions, but also whether unions will survive in their present form," explained Bruce Popper, regional vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.
He is part of a large, local union that represents around 3,500 healthcare workers in the Rochester region. They were one of the first unions to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights in the workplace, among other critical issues, championing efforts into state legislation. Unions, like Popper's, have been working together for years to fight for the general welfare.
May Day Parade! Well, Labor Day, Actually
Though not officially recognized until 1935, workers had been forming unions throughout the 1880s, out of necessity. Employers fought back, often times with governmental support.
"There was no such thing as pension, no retirement, no workplace safety," said Dr. Vincent Serravallo, associate professor of Sociology at RIT. "By 1886, the struggle for the eight-hour day really became a national effort."
On May 1, 1886, police rushed a peaceful demonstration run by organized labor in Chicago and an unknown culprit threw a bomb, killing many in an incident now known as the Haymarket Rebellion. Those who spoke at the rally were charged with inciting a riot and punished with the death penalty, marking the emergence of May Day. The holiday, acknowledged worldwide as International Workers' Day, remained unrecognized by the United States until the escalation of confrontations forced President Grover Cleveland to establish Labor Day in 1894.
"It is a reminder of the contribution that working people and their organizations, labor unions in particular, have made to the standard of living in the United States," said Popper.
"It is a reminder of the contribution that working people and their organizations, labor unions in particular, have made to the standard of living in the United States," said Popper. Many of the labor accomplishments of the 20th century set the standards we now take for granted in the workplace, from weekends and workers' compensation to forty-hour work weeks with overtime.
The holiday, celebrated on the first Monday of September, was marked by parades with people holding signs and marching through the streets.
"It was more of a political statement," said Serravallo. "Today, when we watch parades, there are prizes for the best floats and there is a marching band."
A similar trend has been made apparent in Rochester's labor history, from the death of union martyr Ida Braiman to its being one of the few places in the U.S. to have had a general strike where all workers stopped working, no matter their industry.
Popper explained that in 1947, one of the largest unions at the time, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, supported many workers in Rochester's booming clothing industry and even Xerox production workers worldwide. When the City of Rochester refused to recognize the organizing efforts of its employees, the clothing workers called for a unanimous strike and shut everything in the city down for 24 hours, causing the city to back off.
"Rochester has a long history of Labor Day parades," Popper said. "Then sometime in the post-war era, that stopped."
Holiday Life Cycles
"Like any other holiday, a lot of us forgot the roots and the original significance," Serravallo said. "It could be anything — the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, even Christmas — in fact many of us feel guilty that we have commercialized all of these holidays and many people will admit that they don't really know the origins of why these holidays emerged in the first place."
"I think that has to do with the fact that our educational system, in general the public education system, really doesn't pay much attention at all to labor history," Serravallo continued. "It's usually not the business of education to point out some of these areas of U.S. history that have not been so democratic."
"It's usually not the business of education to point out some of these areas of U.S. history that have not been so democratic," Serravallo said.
Many, including Popper, once expressed hesitance toward reviving the parade. "My skepticism about the importance was misplaced, it was wrong," he said. "On the first Labor Day, people gathered along South Clinton Ave., near Washington Square Park, and it was all the different types of workers of all different occupations — professionals, non-professionals, men, women, blacks, whites, Latinos, everybody in one place no matter what their unions were."
"I think the most important feature of Labor Day and its activities, particularly the parade, is it brings a huge diversity in all categories of the workers to one place at one time," stated Popper. "The theming of those events may be a little different each year depending on the threats to working people."
Though the general populace tends to forget the empowering meaning behind most holidays, both Serravallo and Popper agree on the immediate importance of Labor Day in a time where once-fundamental solutions to old issues on immigrant treatment and healthcare coverage have been flipped upside down.
Work the System
Labor issues are continue to be relevant to students preparing to enter the working world. Labor day represents an occasion for expressed unification and solidarity, a welcoming notion in such politically tumultuous times. Though the limited media coverage of workplace-related topics makes it difficult to follow, progress is still being made.
"My union is very proud of the fact that we were the first union to come out against discrimination against sexual orientation," said Popper. "We were very strong about getting New York to enact an equal marriage provision in its law."
For Popper, the work has taken on new meanings.
"Unions unite, because if you're not united and you get in a fight with the establishment or the wealthy and powerful, you're not going to win," he explained. "So, no matter what your attitudes are about race, gender and people's lifestyle, workers and unions are forced to unite and to get over their prejudices if they're to win."