What does Labor Day signify for you? Barbeques? Sales at your favorite outlet stores? One last day at the beach before classes begin? Everybody loves a three-day weekend, but I wanted to take a moment to write and reflect on some of the issues and events that have, and continue to, affect the struggles of working people here in New York City and elsewhere. It may mark the unofficial end of summer, but the official national holiday of Labor Day has its roots in workers’ rights.
The first Labor Day “celebration” in the United States can be traced to New York City’s Union Square on Sept. 5, 1882. Up to 20,000 artisans and laborers including dock builders, tin and sheet iron workers, machinists, bricklayers, granite stone-cutters, plasterers, glass workers, painters, coal shovelers, furniture makers, upholsterers, tailors, shoemakers, cigar packers, and other workers planned to march around City Hall and up Broadway. Why were they marching? You guessed it; compromised rights in the workplace, including unsafe conditions, long work hours and pay cuts. And during that time, laborers began protecting themselves by unionizing.
Looking at the illustration above, I wonder if any of the young, namely Jewish, Italian and Ukrainian, female operatives who would form The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (in 1900) were present among the marchers. We know that many of these union members were out striking with thousands of other garment industry workers in New York City in the Fall of 1909, a strike that would last thirteen weeks and result in a contract establishing higher wages for 15,000 workers.
Clara Lemlich, was one such worker who was able to find a job in the garment industry upon her arrival in New York where working conditions had become even worse since the turn of the century, as new industrial sewing machines allowed employers to demand twice as much production from their employees, who often had to supply their own machines and carry them to and from work. Lemlich, along with many of her co-workers, rebelled against the long hours, low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, and humiliating treatment from supervisors. Lemlich became involved in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and was ultimately elected to the executive board of its local chapter, Local 25. On November 22nd of 1909, at Cooper Union, and in front of thousands of assembled workers, 23-year old Clara demanded to speak after hearing other voices of the American labor movement of the Lower East Side speak in general terms about the need for solidarity and preparedness.
“I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”
Approximately 20,000 out of the 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade walked out in the next two days; this would become known as the Uprising of the 20,000. The strike lasted until February 10, 1910, producing union contracts at many of the city’s shops, but not at Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which became a synonym for “sweatshop” during the following year. On March 25, 1911, nearly 150 garment workers, mostly young women, died as a result of a fire that consumed the factory. Workers were either burned to death or died jumping to escape the flames. The public outcry over the tragedy mounted, fueled by rumors that the doors were locked and by a sense that owners’ greed prevented the adoption of basic fire and safety measures. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire unleashed public outrage and forced government action. Within three years, more than 36 new state laws had been passed on quality of workplace conditions. The landmark legislation gave New Yorkers the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the country and became a model for the nation.
In most of the country, Labor Day no longer has strong ties to organized labor. The president and other political leaders issue statements extolling workers, but these get little public attention. Instead, leisure is the main order of the day and generally marks the end of the summer vacation season and the reopening of schools. But while Labor Day means a day off work for many Americans, the struggle continues for higher minimum wages, higher-wage jobs, job security, and other concerns amongst workers in the United States. Only several months ago, in May, a crowd of up to 2,000 people, including several hundred McDonald’s employees in uniform, gathered at the McDonald’s Illinois headquarters in a protest calling for higher wages and the right to unionize. Kendall Fells, a protest organizer, had this to say: “McDonald’s is the leader of the industry. It’s the fastest-growing industry in the country. And these workers are here to look [CEO] Don Thompson and his shareholders in the face and say, ‘We do work for you. We are growing. And we’re not going to live in poverty while you sit here and take on billions of dollars in profit. And that’s what this is about.” As I wrap up this short piece, I am feeling a larger-picture appreciation for all of those workers who have, and continue to organize, mobilize, and use direct action to gain victories for working people. Thank you. I stand with you this Labor Day.
Contributed by: Caitlin Bernstein, Librarian, Midwood