Labor Day used to have something to do with actual labor

Echoes of our past
William & Joy Wangemann for The Review

Labor Day is past, summer is about over and it’s back to school and back to work for most of us. Labor Day is a holiday that is totally unique.

In the words of the great labor leader Samuel Gompers “Labor Day… is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation.” Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement in America.

It is a special tribute to all the American workers, union and nonunion that have given America the highest living standard in the world.

The greatest effort made by labor was output of war materials during WW2. The number of ships, planes, tanks and guns produced by the American workforce of both men and women is absolutely staggering.

No other country in the world could have matched their performance. Had it not been for their herculean effort, we may have lost the war!

Labor Day had its beginnings in the bitter strife of the labor movement in the early 1880’s. The first Labor Day celebration was held September 5, 1882 in New York City, and was organized by the Central Labor Union. A huge parade was held in which thousands of union workers marched. After the parade the marchers and parade goers all assembled for a day long picnic.

In those early days of the union movement in this country many labor leaders were looked upon as rabble rousers and malcontents who were just trying to stir up trouble.

Many strikes were marred by violence and bloodshed. It was not uncommon for large companies to hire security guards, who themselves were little better than thugs, to protect company property from rioting strikers.

On several occasions federal troops were used to quell disturbances, and in several cases lives were lost, as in the infamous Pullman strike against the Pullman railroad car company in 1894.

It was in 1894 the President Grover Cleveland signed into law a bill making the first Monday in September a legal Holiday. President Cleveland and legislators hurriedly rushed the bill through the legislative process in an attempt to appease union organizers who were upset over the government’s use of troops in the Pullman strike.

Many Historians feel the signing into law of the Labor Day bill was a purely political move by President Cleveland who was running for reelection and had a record of being anti labor. He was not re-elected.

Here in Sheboygan in past years, as in many other cites, a large annual parade was held in which all the labor unions participated. The parade, with union banners fluttering in the early autumn breezes, proceeded proudly up North 8th Street.

Hundreds of union men and women marched in the parade which ended at Kiwanis Park for a daylong celebration of speech making, beer drinking and bratwurst eating.

In Sheboygan, the largely Democratic workers were visited by many politicians running for office, who sought the all important union endorsement. Here as in other parts of the county it was a day to honor the workers who built America.

Sheboygan was always a heavily industrialized blue collar town and in many ways still is. In the pre-World War Two days, most of Sheboygan’s working men carried a lunch box to work and worked in the city’s huge furniture industry, one of the largest in the county, or one of the other big factories such as Kohler Co, Vollrath Co, and Polar Ware Co. just to mention a few.

Most of these laborers were union members and to them Labor Day was very special.

But today Labor Day has taken on a new meaning; it is the traditional end of summer and with the coming of autumn, one last chance to get in a short vacation.

With Union membership around the county on the decline, a nationwide study done in 2015 showed that only 11.1% of the wage earning public are union members. Labor Day Celebrations in many cities, as well as Sheboygan, have become a thing of the past.

I hope you remembered what Labor Day is really all about. Labor Day is to honor the men and women who built this county and made it the best place in the world to live.

Even though American industry is somewhat less than it once was, and union membership has waned, our labor force is still the best in the world.

But Labor Day also marks the traditional beginning of a new school year. For some it will be the last year of formal education and for others just starting out it will be their first year in school. For those able to attend college it will be their first terrifying days of higher education, and for many their first days away from home.

How well I can remember that anxious night before the first day of school. A thousand questions raced through my mind as I tried to sleep.

Would my friends be in my class? Would I like my teacher? How would I get along with my class mates?

At last the long awaited day arrived. I would hurriedly put on my new clothes and new shoes (we always got new clothes and shoes for the new school year) ate a quick breakfast and then left for school with the strong admonition not to scuff my new shoes or get my new clothes dirty.

I was no sooner out of the house when my mother’s orders were forgotten. We either walked or took our bikes to school, school buses were unheard of.

At noon we walked back home for lunch, it seems that back then parents thought it was their responsibility to feed their children not the governments. Times have sure changed!

Today’s Tidbit; The wages for a city worker in the 1880’S were as low as .25 per day. At times the city, unable to meet the payroll gave city workers food coupons redeemable at a local grocery store, owned by the city treasurer.


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