A day to commemorate labor spirit
By Leo Canty
Published: Thursday, September 3, 2009 12:09 PM EDT
Here’s a fun fact for the coming Labor Day weekend: America was started in a union hall.
The ancestors of the modern day carpenters union, all of whom belonged to a local Philadelphia guild called the Carpenters’ Company, finished construction of Carpenters’ Hall in 1774. It was a finely crafted and impressive building, constructed by talented, organized, and skilled trades people who fully understood the value and power of working together to help each other prosper and care for family.
Carpenters guild members toiled like everyone else as King George and the British profiteers were putting the squeeze on colonists at the dawn of the American Revolution. Leaders of the colonies needed a meeting to share their discontent and develop a plan to stop the oppression. The call went out for the First Continental Congress; delegates chose Carpenters’ Hall for what would be the historic gathering, where delegates passed a series of resolutions letting the king and Parliament know they could not trample on the colonists’ rights and put the eventual Revolution in play.
How fitting, then, that the flame that ignited the fire in pursuit of social and economic justice for a nation was lit in a union hall.
A century later, the carpenters and other unions in Philadelphia and other cities were building their own modern-day framework for economic justice and social progress. Part of that framework included a vision to launch a special day of recognition for the toils and achievements of ordinary working people. America had made great strides economically since the Revolution, and the beginning forces of organized labor sought to ensure that due recognition was given to America’s workers.Carpenters union leader Peter McGuire from Philadelphia and Matthew Maguire, a machinist who led the New York City Central Labor Union, are credited with launching the concept of a national observance of Labor Day. The official recorded event took place Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, when some 20,000 working people marched to demand an eight-hour workday and other labor law reforms.
The idea caught on and marches, celebrations, and other observances began to spread to other states as workers fought to win higher wages, workplace rights, and better working conditions at a time when there were no laws to support them.
In 1893, as unions began to gain more power and recognition, New York City workers took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of a national Labor Day, drawing attention to organized efforts to improve wages and workers rights.A year later, 12,000 federal troops were called into Pullman, Ill., to break up a huge strike against the greedy Pullman railway company.Frustrated, angry workers resisted and the situation ended with two workers shot and killed by U.S. deputy marshals.
In what most historians call an election-year attempt to appease workers after the federal crackdown, six days after the strike was broken President Grover Cleveland signed legislation making the first Monday in September a federal holiday, Labor Day. Cleveland lost the election, but many states went ahead and affirmed the holiday in their law books. Connecticut’s law passed in 1889.
Beyond the institution of the holiday, labor has played a significant role as one of the leading catalysts for change this nation has ever seen. Major social and economic changes — ending child labor, a 40-hour week, weekends and paid holidays, pensions, health care, sick and vacation time, safe workplaces — are benefits everyone takes for granted and gets to enjoy.None of these benefits was achieved without a fight. Many struggles and sacrifices were made — and lives given — to provide fair and just rewards in exchange for one’s work.
Today’s unions know — just as those in the Carpenters’ Company did — that at times it’s as difficult to hold on to a good standard of living as it is to improve upon it. But that’s never been a reason to stop trying.The spirit of unity and purpose, and the desire to change things for the better, that suffused Carpenters’ Hall in 1774 is alive and well in today’s union halls — and we all get to feel it at picnics and parades on Monday.
Happy Labor Day.
Leo Canty is executive secretary of the Connecticut AFL-CIO and chairman of the board of the Connecticut Health Foundation. He lives in Windsor.