Summer’s last celebration comes thanks to unions

A Labor Day parade in 1909 in New York. (Library of Congress)
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) If you have a job that offers an 8-hour workday, 40-hours-a-week, weekends off, paid vacations and overtime for extra hours worked, thank somebody in a labor union, because that’s where all that—and Labor Day--came from.

“Dignity, fairness and respect in the workplace, that’s what (labor unions) stand for,” said Nancy Webber Bryant, retired after 40 years at the Waco Veteran’s Administration, but still an active member and officer in Local 1822 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

That’s what the creation of Labor Day was about – celebrating, showing respect, for the working man.

Today Labor Day signals the last gasp of summer, although the actual beginning of fall still is several weeks away, but it’s the time for school, football, harvest and those things that spell an end to the frivolity of summertime.

It’s also the second most dangerous holiday weekend to drive on U.S. highways according to a CBS news report that shows between 2011 and 2015, 308 people died on the country’s highways during the holiday weekend.

In Texas, 46 deaths related to traffic crashes were recorded over the four-day reporting period during the Labor Day weekend in 2018; only New Year’s Day and Memorial Day accounted for more.

In truth, Labor Day “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” the U.S. Department of Labor’s webpage says.

It continues: “It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

The celebration in 2019 marks the holiday’s 125th birthday, but still there is controversy over who had the idea first.

Two men, who have remarkably similar last names, have been credited with bringing the idea from concept to reality.

“Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those ‘who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold,’” the AFL-CIO history page says.

But “Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday.”

Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, is generally accepted as the first Labor Day celebration, which took place in New York City, planned by members of the Central Labor Union, which held a second celebration a year later, on the same day.

Then on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law making the first Monday in September of each year a national holiday.

At the first celebration he said: “The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy.

“It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker.”

How the celebration of Labor Day should take place was specifically outlined in the first proposal — “a street parade to exhibit to the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations’ of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families,” the history on the U.S. Department of Labor, says.

The character of the Labor Day celebration has changed in recent years, especially in large industrial centers where mass displays and huge parades have proved a problem.

Some communities, still, have organized celebrations but now on a much more local level, and overall the holiday has shifted focus to a family day.

Locally Labor Day events included Labor in the Pulpits, scheduled Friday at noon, when labor activists spoke at religious services during the Labor Day weekend to talk about faith and work and the labor movement.

Also a Labor Day Breakfast was set Monday at 9:00 a.m. at George's Restaurant, 1925 Speight Ave. in Waco.

Labor Day is significant for sports in the United States as the weekend marks the beginning of many fall sports.

National Football League (NFL) teams traditionally play their kickoff game the Thursday following Labor Day, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) football teams play their season-opening games and The Southern 500 NASCAR auto race has been held on Labor Day weekend and at Indianapolis Raceway Park, the National Hot Rod Association hold their finals of the NHRA U.S. Nationals drag race that weekend.

Labor Day also marks the middle point between weeks one and two of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships held in Flushing Meadows, New York.

In the fashion world, Labor Day is (or was) considered the last day when it is acceptable to wear white or seersucker, (not so much today, primarily because it’s origin of the rule was so Victorian).

Of course, that means retailers saw Labor Day as an opportunity, since so many consumers are off work and have time to shop.

Some national retail analysts claim Labor Day weekend is second only in sales to Black Friday at Christmastime.

With so many customers shopping, retailers use the weekend as an opportunity to close out markdowns from summer merchandise, target students for back-to-school and preview fall lines, especially for women and girls.

Had it not been for labor unions and their blue-collar members, none of this ever would have happened.

Today, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says 14.7 American workers were members of labor unions in 2018, roughly 10.5-percent of all workers, down by .02-percent from 2017.

“In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers,” the BLS report says.

“Labor is strong in Central Texas,” Bryant said, “We’re expanding and just in the health care sector have almost 2,000 members.

“We’re here. We’re strong and we’re not going anywhere,” she said.

Bryant, who also serves as her local’s legislative coordinator and is a delegate to the Central Texas Labor Council, said labor’s footprint in the area is growing.

“We not only have locals in Waco but in several counties around Central Texas now and all of the veteran’s hospitals have locals now.”

In fact, federal employees make up the largest segment of union members in the area and, she noted, one-third of federal employees are military veterans.

Nationwide public-sector workers, at 33.9-percent, continued to be group showing the highest participation and most representative among them were more workers in protective service occupations, education, training, and library occupations.

Men continued to have a higher union membership rate (11.1 percent) than women (9.9 percent) and black workers remained more likely to be union members than White, Asian, or Hispanic workers, the report shows.

Pay for union members versus non-union members showed non-union employees an average of 82-percent of the weekly earnings a union member was paid, reported at $860 vs. $1,051.

Other countries celebrate a labor day, too, many on May 1, May Day, which first emerged in 1886 as an alternative holiday for the celebration of labor, later becoming known as International Workers' Day.

The date had its origins at the 1885 convention of the American Federation of Labor, which passed a resolution calling for adoption of the eight-hour day effective May 1, 1886, AFL-CIO History shows.