The rebellious spirit of Matthew Maguire’s first Labor Day is spreading again across our country. Join the parade.
11 min read
It’s a bit odd that in America’s thoroughly corporatized culture we have no national day of honor for the Captains of Industry, and yet we do have one for working stiffs: Labor Day! Where did it come from? Who gave this day off to laboring people? History books that bother mentioning Labor Day at all usually credit president Grover Cleveland with its creation: He signed a law in July 1894 that proclaimed a holiday for workers in Washington, D.C., and the federal territories.
Cleveland? Holy Mother Jones! He was an extreme laissez-faire conservative, a “Bourbon Democrat” who never lifted a presidential pinkie to ameliorate the plight of exploited workers. To the contrary, in that same month of 1894, Cleveland enshrined himself in Labor’s Hall of Eternal Infamy: At the behest of robber baron George Pullman and other railroad tycoons, he ordered some 12,000 U.S. Army troops in to crush the historic Pullman Strike, which was being led by union icon Eugene V. Debs. Thirty workers were killed, Debs was arrested on trumped-up charges of conspiracy, and all workers who supported the strike were fired and blacklisted.
Far from being a gift to workers, Cleveland’s recognition of Labor Day was a desperate political ploy to mollify the anger of the union movement he had just decimated. He and his Democratic Party rushed the federal holiday into law only days after his military assault on Pullman strikers. In fact, this day was not “given” by anyone in power–it was taken by laborers themselves. In a bottom-up act of democratic audacity, this was our first national holiday to be put on the calendar by ordinary people. And they were not doing it just to get a day at the beach, but to get into the faces of power.
The real history
Matthew Maguire, a 19th-century New York machinist and an unrelenting activist for higher wages and shorter hours, was the one who first proposed a day-long solidarity rally to focus the forces of labor on reclaiming the democratic rights of workers and gaining a fair share of the wealth they create. Known as “the dauntless Maguire,” he was secretary of the fledgling New York Central Labor Union, and in May 1882, he called for all 56 unions in the vicinity to make “a public show of organized strength.” The CLU agreed and set the date of Tuesday, September 5, for a “Mammoth Festival, Parade and Pic-Nic.” Adding to the audacity, the union council unilaterally declared that the day was to be a holiday for all workers who wanted to leave their jobs and join the action. Doing so was beyond bold, for it could get them fired–the bosses ruled workplaces with an iron hand, compelling 12-hour days, six days a week, for $2 a day.
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Sure enough, as the 10 a.m. start time approached, only 80 union members had mustered at City Hall. But then came a faint sound of horns and drums–200 members of the jewelers union from Newark were just minutes away, coming with a 35-piece marching band! This small starter group kicked off the parade, and after a few blocks 400 bricklayers merged with them from a side street, moving in step behind wagons bearing artistic arches of brick as testaments to their skills. At nearly every cross street, more marchers joined: longshoremen in checkered jumpers; frame makers wearing beaver hats, carrying huge axes, and escorting a large wagon proudly displaying furniture the framers produced; cigar makers with red banners, a red-sashed official, and a singing society belting out ballads; and piano makers marching with a float bearing one of their trade’s well-crafted instruments and a union member enthusiastically pounding out tunes. Thousands of workers paraded–row after row of laborers, marching six abreast with verve for miles through what was then the most ostentatious corridor of wealth and power in America.
In a 1982 article, historian Richard Hunt described the wondrous incongruity of this mass of working-class Americans striding so purposefully up Fifth Avenue: “They passed August Belmont’s house; they trudged on past the tonish Burnswick Hotel; past the uptown Delmonico restaurant; past the elegant new Union League Club; past the mansion of Vincent Astor. Mrs. Astor–along with many of her millionaire neighbors–was in Newport for the season. Nonetheless, if the consciousness of capitalism was not penetrated, its precinct was.”
The day culminated with a frolicking festival attended by 25,000 at Elm Park, which included the city’s biggest beer garden, a dance pavilion, playgrounds for children, and ample picnic areas. [Note to present-day organizers: If you want people to turn out, follow this 1882 model of providing beer, music, food, and fun–so people will want to come.]
It was from this march and festival that both the concept and name of “Labor Day” was born. Afterwards, New York’s CLU resolved to do it annually. Of course, barons and bosses damn near swallowed their $10 cigars at such effrontery and tried to forbid it; editorialists decried it as rank ingratitude to the “job creators” of the day; and the establishment’s politicians warned that labor’s show of strength was anarchy on parade. But workers had found their voice and a measure of class consciousness in a day to focus the public on their cause, and unions quickly spread the idea to other cities across the country. By 1894, when Grover Cleveland finally sanctioned the federal holiday, 23 states had already set aside September’s first Monday as labor’s own day.
Meanwhile, in 2015…
It’s easy to ridicule what Labor Day has now become for many of us: Just a day off to go golfing, take a swim, watch a ballgame, crank up the grill, and do some 12-ounce elbow bends. Oh, yeah–and also hit the malls for the sales. What irony–labor’s day has been turned into a corporate Shop-a-Palooza by megachains and big box stores, requiring millions of low-wage retail employees to put in a full shift on what’s supposed to be their day.
But ridicule only leads to debilitating cynicism and surrender–the exact opposite of the rebellious spirit that created Labor Day and exactly the defeatist spirit that the corporate order thrives on. So rather than sinking into the murky waters of pessimism, let’s notice that (1) our modern-day George Pullmans and Grover Clevelands have created a new Gilded Age of gross inequities and worker exploitation, and (2) that this is sparking a rising new rebelliousness among all sorts of workers. In fact, the spirit of Matthew Maguire’s Labor Day is spreading again across our country, and a grassroots social justice movement is emergent.
This is coming despite 50 years of hearing the corporate mantra that unions are passe, fusty relics no longer needed. The modern world of work, they chant, is no longer the brutish place it was in the early days of industrialization, but instead is a sophisticated,
widely prosperous entrepreneurial economy of high-tech and ser-vice-based work that rewards individual initiative. Here’s a typical version of the mantra from a CBS MoneyWatch commentator:
“There was a time when America needed labor unions to organize for worker’s rights, but federal and state laws prohibit workplace atrocities of the past… I spent decades in the high-tech industry where unions had no traction… High-tech employees are typically treated well and if they’re not, there are always state labor boards and lawyers to intervene on employees’ behalf.”
What a slaphappy planet he lives on! There’s no need for workers to unite for their own protection and advancement because individuals can count on the generosity of the corporate hierarchy for fair treatment. And if any unpleasantness does arise, you can just hire a lawyer or a lobbyist to get justice from the worker-friendly court system and the always-helpful regulatory agencies.
But no matter how hard the “unions-are-obsolete” propaganda is pushed, there’s one truth it can’t overcome: Real life. The majority of Americans have now had personal experiences with the loss of jobs, income, homes, pensions, middle-class possibilities–and power. Corporations view workers (now including white-collar professionals) not as assets, but as costs to be cut and then disposed of as soon as possible. Corporate greed has knocked down, held down, and stomped on so many workaday people that wage earners are realizing anew that their only hope is to organize.
That’s easier said than done. Even though public approval ratings for unions are on the rise–according to a Gallup poll released this August, 58% of Americans approve of unions–the deck is outrageously stacked against those who try organizing unions in their workplaces. Not only do corporate executives, financiers, politicians, and the media almost always oppose a union drive, but national labor law itself has been perverted during the past three decades into a corporate joker that now plays as the anti-labor law.
Nonetheless, through existing unions, union-affiliated organizations, and populist coalitions that focus on worker issues, America’s grassroots have come alive with organizing campaigns to reverse the rampant inequities and abuses being perpetuated every day by the plutocratic powers. TheLowdown has been covering and supporting many of these uplifting working-class rebellions: Fast food workers and the “Fight for $15,” adjunct college professors, Moral Monday, a Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service,National People’s Action, Black Lives Matter, Working Families Party, Amazon workers, Occupy Wall Street, Our Walmart, United Workers Congress, and opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Such uprisings now exist in practically every zip code–from Silicon Valley to most college campuses, from day laborers gathered at your local Home Depot to nannies in the homes of the rich. New groups are popping up regularly, as unorganized, maltreated people not only get fed up, but also see other groups standing up, getting organized, and showing the way. Moreover, with the 1-percenters grabbing ever more for themselves at our expense, America’s political zeitgeist has shifted against the grabbers and for the populist rebels. From Pope Francis to Bernie Sanders, the call for new egalitarian policies to advance the ethic of the common good is resonating with people who only a few years ago passively accepted corporate dominance.
Anyone still believing that workplace atrocities are things of the past needs to meet some of the immigrants in our country. And not just undocumented workers. Much more attention should be given to the outright abuse of people who not only have the proper paperwork, but who are actuallycorporate sponsored.
Two distinct groups of foreign workers are being brought here under special US visas to be [WARNING: Ridiculous Orwellian euphemism straight ahead] “Guest Workers.” Both sets of guests are imported for one reason: to inflate the bottom lines of powerful, very profitable corporations by giving them a cheap, easily exploitable workforce. This artificially distorts the labor supply, suppresses wages, and redistributes income from the many to a rich few.
H-2: Low-tech labor. The government’s H-2 visa category is a boon to corporations dependent on manual labor but unwilling to pay high enough wages to attract American workers. The handy H-2 “rent-a-worker” program lets these companies import more than 100,000 low-wage workers a year from impoverished communities in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. The workers clean rooms in luxury resorts, peel crawfish in seafood plants, do the sweaty things for landscape outfits, and otherwise toil at our economy’s bottom rung, usually paid minimally (or less) by companies that profit from their labor.
Our “guests” tend to be treated as the indentured servants of their corporate sponsors. In a stunning new report this July titled “The New American Slavery,” Buzzfeed.com found that H-2 workers are commonly cheated on pay, made to work extremely long hours with no overtime wages, forced to pay illegal fees, housed in squalid and dehumanizing conditions (such as horse trailers), sexually harassed, not allowed to travel, and kept under constant surveillance by employers and local police.
The “guests” can only work for the employer that sponsored their visa. Plus, employers often confiscate (illegally) the workers’ passports.
Why doesn’t the government do something to stop these outrages? Because Congress protects corporations, not people. Even though the Labor Department, which administers H-2 visas, found violations of the guest worker law in 82 percent (!) of the cases it investigated last year, Congress funds so few investigators and enforcement agents that the vast majority of companies bringing foreign workers to our Land of the Free are not monitored. If a company is prosecuted, fines are minor, and even repeat violators can keep getting new workers through the program. Almost none of the abusers are ever charged with a crime.
H-1B: High-tech labor. At the opposite end of the guest-worker scheme are visas reserved for brand-name corporate giants wanting to import college-educated workers with specialized information-technology skills. But wait–don’t we have a lot of top-notch IT specialists born and raised on our own soil? And aren’t the high-tech fields of science-technology-engineering-math (STEM) a priority of the US educational system, already producing twice as many university graduates as there are jobs? Yes and yes. But the royals of high tech–companies such as Facebook, Google, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Microsoft–don’t want to pay the market rate of salaries, benefits and promotions that good IT employees can command. So to break the workers’ power, the industry’s PR specialists first concocted a “crisis” by screeching that America’s educational system fails to produce the number and quality of STEM graduates that their corporations must have, thus creating a brainpower shortage that threatens tech innovation. Second, their lobbyists, using ample campaign donations as a lubricant, keep convincing Congress that the only solution to this national emergency is to let the corporations import more tech workers from abroad.
This phenomenally rich industry is presently allowed to bring 65,000 foreign workers to their campuses each year. In violation of federal laws, the corporations do not “make every effort” to find qualified US employees before seeking H1-B workers, nor do they pay the prevailing US salary to these workers. The temporary visa holders generally don’t get promotions or retirement benefits, and after being used for three years or so, they’re sent back home to be replaced by a new batch of disposable foreigners.
High-tech execs insist they wouldn’t think of misusing the program to fluff up their own profits, but–oops–just this year it’s been revealed that both Disney Inc. and Southern California Edison have fired hundreds of their US technology employees after getting the okay to import temporary foreign workers. Then the corporations required the displaced Americans to train their replacements as a price of getting any severance pay.
Meanwhile, industry lobbyists are demanding that Congress triple the number of high-tech workers they can import each year.
Chiseled into the marble facade of the US Supreme Court building is this noble sentiment: “Equal justice under law.” But most Americans today know that there’s no use hoping that the next president, the Congress, or the courts will turn our country’s egalitarian pretensions into fact. Only you and I can do that by building, step by step, a grassroots social justice movement. The good news is that various progressive campaigns and coalitions are out there, building and beginning to unite into a whole much bigger than its separate parts. In the spirit of that first Labor Day, let’s take heart in this rising rebelliousness, join the parade, and take part in lifting our society closer to America’s highest democratic ideals.