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It is an interesting time to think about workers and labor.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, unions became increasingly vocal about defending the rights of workers. Some of the more pragmatic unionists accepted capitalism but wanted to minimize its damage to working folk. Some of the more radical unionists opposed capitalism. On September 5, 1882, a left leaning organization, the CLU (Central Labor Union) in New York City sponsored a union festival to correspond with the Knights of Labor annual conference in New York City. The organizers of the festival, Matthew McGuire (machinist), Robert Blissert (tailor), and Peter J. McGuire (carpenter) wanted to recruit unaffiliated workers, legitimize unions, and demonstrate to politicians, employers, and the general public that labor was powerful and important.

International Ladies Garment Union. Members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) participate in a Labor Day parade in New York City in 1909. Created in 1900 the group fought for workers rights. The parade of union workers was designed to demonstrate the power of organized labor and was the centerpiece of early Labor Day festivities. © Corbis via
Ellen M. Litwicki, Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure, 2004

The first Labor Day festivities included a procession of 10,00 to 20,000 workers, some wearing the uniforms of their trade like aprons or work clothes. Some of the socialists wore red badges or armbands to show their politics. Some unions did actual demonstrations of their craft, such as cigar rollers, you guessed it, rolling cigars. Others marched with banners to proclaim their support for 8 hour work days, opposition to child labor, and support of unions. There were speeches by union leaders and afterward, picnics with families and German beer, fireworks, and dancing to union bands.

The CLU repeated this festival in 1883 and 1884 and wanted to make the event a national holiday, in between the 4th of July and Thanksgiving, which gave workers a rare 2 day weekend, since most of workers worked on Saturdays. By 1889 more than 400 cities celebrated Labor Day, and Oregon made it an official holiday in 1887. It was recognized as a federal holiday in 1894 and politicians were quick to make use of the holiday to court labor votes. In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt (Republican VP candidate) and William Jennings Bryan (Democrat candidate) made Labor Day speeches in 1900 while campaigning to win the presidency.

I don’t know that many Americans remember much about labor movements or unions. But this moment in time had made many of us reconsider what work looks like. Most of us have had to adjust to what work looks like during a quarantine and a worldwide pandemic. As Debra Rienstra pointed out on Saturday, we have all had to learn how to do our jobs in new ways. If I have learned anything, it is that it is virtually impossible to be a parent and hold a fulltime job during the pandemic. It seems as if the answers to all my questions are the same: do more work. Caregiving for sick kids with COVID or just colds and allergies who cannot attend school, homeschooling when daycares and/or schools are closed, or when kids are sick, all the normal responsibilities of work with lots of creative solutions to substitute for what we did before the pandemic, more meetings, and retooling to teach virtually, hybrid, and in-person. When one adds the loss of jobs for millions of Americans and the economic toll of the pandemic, this is a sobering time for labor.

Though I am, sadly, without a functioning time machine (Bill and Ted are using it to Face the Music, apparently), I would love to know what the laborers of the 1890s would think about labor right now.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

One Comment

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This deserves at least one comment. So here’s two: First, one is allowed to be a socialist, from Christian convictions (rightly or wrongly), and still be a good American citizen. By law. Second, my grandfather Johannes Hartog was such. He was an Amsterdammer who was baptized in Abraham Kuyper’s church, and immigrated at 18 to Paterson NJ, but for the whole of his life considered himself a Christian Socialist. In the Kuyper sense, of being in favour of well-organized labour. He was the only Labour Union member in the 2nd CRC of Paterson, and later, the 3rd CRC of Paterson. My mom frequently tells the story of her being the only child at the North Fourth Street Christian School to wear an FDR button on the lapel of her coat. The whole neo-Kuyperian movement in Grand Rapids (Betsy DeVos, Kuyper College, etc.) forgets the pro-Labour leanings (although of course always Anti-Revolutionary) of the great Bram de Geweldige (Abraham Kuyper) himself. And don’t forget that the organizer of the proto-AFL in NYC was the cigar-roller (yes, thanks, Rebecca) Samuel Gompers, the Dutch Jew from Amsterdam. From the same soup. If someone wants to make final statements about the relation of labour and capital, I dare you.

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