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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Not with a bang but a whimper

If you look up Labor Day on the website of the U.S. Department of Labor, you’ll read that “The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union.” That’s an odd way to depict the event. No such holiday existed, and the workers weren’t celebrating. Numbering at least 10,000, they risked their jobs by taking off work without permission to march (not parade) from City Hall to Union Square to protest their dreadful working conditions. The federal government’s desire to suppress worker militancy, evidenced by that historical distortion, has been evident from the beginning of union activity in the U.S.

It was likely, though not inevitable, that the first Monday of September would become Labor Day in the U.S. Because of the New York City action, the American Federation of Labor, at a convention in Chicago in 1884, voted to set that day aside as “a laborer’s national holiday.” Some municipal ordinances were passed recognizing it, and in 1887, Oregon became the first state to do so, quickly followed by four others.

But in 1886 in Chicago, May 1 was designated as the day calling for an eight-hour workday. Three days later, in Haymarket Square, a peaceful rally to protest a police assault on workers the day before, which had left one worker dead and several injured, turned deadly for both police and protesters when someone threw a bomb. Subsequently, hundreds of labor leaders were arrested. Eight anarchists were convicted on flimsy evidence and seven of them were hanged. Those events led the Second International, a mainly European federation of socialist and labor parties, in 1889 to designate May 1 as International Workers Day. Most of the world observes May 1.

In June 1894, Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to break a strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company sparked by wage cuts and the firing of union leaders. More than a dozen workers died in the clashes. At the end of that month, Cleveland signed into law a bill designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day in D.C. and U.S. territories. Given his antipathy to the aims of organized labor, May 1 was not a choice.

Washington hasn’t been friendly to organized labor since Nixon beat Humphrey in 1968. Republicans are determined to destroy unions — it was one of Reagan’s two main goals, and he went a long way to achieving it by destroying PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controller’s Organization) in his first term. The Democrats always proclaim their solidarity but deliver very little. For example, candidate Obama promised labor his support for its No. 1 legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act. EFCA would have declared victory for the union when a majority of employees at an unorganized workplace signed cards declaring their desire to join. It would have ended management’s protracted delaying tactics that have been so effective against organizing drives. But President Obama wouldn’t bring EFCA forward during his first two years when he had big majorities in the Senate and House, and after the 2010 mid-term elections, EFCA was dead.

Seeking to be mainstream and for a brief time achieving that status, organized labor decades ago eschewed militancy, fearful of being viewed as socialist, much less communist. Now, the remnant of its bygone success is Labor Day, when un-organized, poverty-wage retail workers are forced to put in long hours to fill the coffers of the Walton family.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.