By Mike Matejka
As Labor Day comes, many will enjoy firing up the grills, a cold one and perhaps a day of fishing or the kids enjoying the pool. Enjoy it – it is well deserved.
It is well deserved because we Americans are a hard-working people. Many don’t take their full vacation allocation and thanks to cell phones, sometimes we never escape work.
This year is the 125th anniversary of Labor Day as a federal holiday. Illinois declared the holiday in 1891; Bloomington workers celebrated that year with a parade to Franklin Park.
The first Labor Day was illegal, a demonstration in New York City in 1882. Workers were calling for social recognition and better conditions. Labor Day was originally not about a holiday, but a protest. Until the 1930s, the workday was often 10 to 12 hours long, wages were low, child labor was rampant and safety conditions non-existent. To correct this, workers organized unions; they registered to vote; they showed society that extreme gaps between the wealthy few and the struggling many were not the ingredients of a fair society.
Changing these conditions was not a fair fight. Company guards, hired thugs and state militias broke up strikes and demonstrations. Blood was spilled and lives were lost. Crushing defeats often came to those who dared raise their head.
In 1894, when Labor Day became official, the nation was still reeling from a recession. Railroad workers that summer boycotted Pullman Sleeping Cars after workers in South Chicago protested their meager pay and high rents in the company town of Pullman, Illinois. Trains quit running in 27 states and the nation came to standstill. Court injunctions, federal troops and federal marshals broke the strike. In Chicago, over 30 protesters were killed. Railroad workers were blacklisted for their efforts. While this was going, striking coal miners in the Illinois Valley faced a similar confrontation, their fight lost in the Pullman headlines.
Much has changed in 125 years. Still, working people face new challenges today. Too many workers are contingent, without regular hours. Some patch together three jobs to survive. Workers are categorized as “managers” and thus don’t receive overtime pay. The gap between the uber-wealthy and the average all equal the 1890s, with those at the bottom scraping by while billions accumulate at the top.
So celebrate Labor Day, but remember, workers’ efforts are still unfinished. Come celebrate and join us on Labor Day for the Bloomington Parade, downtown Bloomington on Front Street down Lee Street and then Wood Street to Miller Park. Cheer on your fellow workers and celebrate the day that belongs to all of us who work for a living. Remember, we work to live, not live to work.
Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society. He currently serves on the Normal Planning Commission.
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