Labor Day. Time again for politicians and union adherents to praise organized labor. Time again for others to pontificate about the supposed decline and growing irrelevance of unions as they continue to lose members and continue to argue among themselves over the future direction of the labor movement. Time again for most other people to ignore the Labor Day messages as we mark the end of summer with yet another three-day weekend.
The general public indifference is understandable. After all, only about 12 percent of the country’s working people are in unions these days. But even if you are not a union member — even if you do not approve of unions — consider this while you’re enjoying the long Labor Day holiday:
There wouldn’t be any three-day weekends if it wasn’t for those unions.
If unions hadn’t done what they did — and continue to do — it’s highly unlikely that anyone outside the executive ranks would be getting a paid holiday on Labor Day, or on any other day. (Or even, of course, that there would be such a holiday as Labor Day.)
Nor is it likely that those who are required to work on such holidays would be getting the pay of two to three times their regular rate that unions have made the standard for holiday work in most areas — or get premium pay for any other work, at any other time.
Holidays meant very little to most working people in the days before unions became effective. They meant only an unwelcome day off and loss of a day’s pay or, at best, a day of work at regular wages.
Those were the days when unions still were struggling primarily for nothing more than legal recognition. It wasn’t until World War II that unions were able to go beyond the fundamentals and make negotiation of paid holidays a common practice, a concession employers made in lieu of the pay raises that federal wage controls prohibited during the war.
The paid vacations so many working people took as usual this summer also were very rare until unions demanded and won them. So were employer-financed pensions and medical care and other fringe benefits, health and safety standards, job security and other things now commonly granted most workers, union and non-union alike.
Thus without unions, we should not forget, there would be no paid holidays for most people, no premium or overtime pay, no paid vacations, few fringe benefits and little protection against job-related hazards and arbitrary dismissal.
Without unions, as a matter of fact, the standard work day might very well still be 10 to 12 hours, the standard work week six to seven days, and working people would have few of the rights so many now take for granted. That includes the overriding right of having a genuine voice in determining their pay and working conditions.
You doubt it? Consider the remembrances of Mark Hawkins, who worked in the warehouses along San Francisco’s busy waterfront in the 1930s, before the coming of effective unionization.
Hawkins remembered men wrestling with crates, bundles, cartons, merchandise in all sizes, shapes and weights, 10 hours a day, often every day of the week, for a mere $60 a month. They worked as many hours on as many days as the boss demanded, at whatever pay he offered, lest they be replaced by others clamoring for jobs in those dark days of the Great Depression.
Hawkins especially remembered a fellow worker who failed to raise his hand one Saturday when the boss made his usual Saturday afternoon request for “volunteers” to work Sunday. The reluctant warehouseman pleaded that his wife, undergoing a complicated pregnancy, was seriously ill and would need him at home to comfort her.
“Okay,” said the boss — “but don’t you think she’ll feel even worse if you have to tell her you don’t have a job anymore?”
The man worked that Sunday. When he got home, his wife was dead.
Very few of today’s employers would even consider acting in such a manner. It would be virtually unthinkable, given the firm standing gained for all workers by the country’s now solidly entrenched unions. That alone is more than enough reason to honor organized labor on the holiday it won for us all.
By some reckoning, this is the 111th Labor Day, since it was first observed as a national holiday in 1894. But the observance actually began a quarter-century earlier in San Francisco.
It was on Feb. 21, 1868. Brass bands blared, flags, banners and torchlights waved high as more than 3,000 union members marched proudly through the city’s downtown streets, led by shipyard workers and carpenters and men from dozens of other construction trades.
“A jollification,” the marchers called their parade — the climax of a three-year campaign of strikes and other pressures that had culminated in the establishment of the eight-hour workday as a legal right in California.
New York unionists staged a similar parade in 1882 that is often erroneously cited as the first Labor Day parade, even though it occured 14 years after the march in San Francisco.
Honors for holding the first official Labor Day are usually granted the state of Oregon, which proclaimed a Labor Day holiday in 1887 — seven years before the Federal Government got around to proclaiming the holiday which is now observed nationwide.
But Oregon’s move came nearly a year after Gov. George Stoneman of California issued a proclamation setting aside May 11, 1886 as a legal holiday to honor a new organization of California unions — the year-old Iron Trades Council. That, said renowned labor historian Ira B. Cross of the University of California, was “the first legalized Labor Day in the United States.”
San Francisco also played a major role in that celebration of 1886. The city was the scene of the chief event — a march down Market Street by more than lO,OOO men and women from some 40 unions, led by the uniformed rank-and-file of the Coast Seamen’s Union. Gov. Stoneman and his entire staff marched right along with them.
The procession was seven miles long, took more than two hours to pass any given point and generated enthusiasm that the San Francisco Examiner said was “entirely unprecedented — even in political campaigns.”
Copyright © 2005 Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.(firstname.lastname@example.org, www.dickmeister.com).