Labor Day means different things to different people. For some, Labor Day symbolizes the end of summer. A last fling at the beach or at the fishin’ hole. A parade down Main Street — at least in many Rust Belt cities and towns. Family reunions. A new school year for the kids. Those things all come to mind this time of year.
For others, Labor Day recalls the struggles of working people in the Industrial Age: The Knights of Labor, who inaugurated Labor Day in 1882. The 1886 Haymarket riots in Chicago, where workers at the McCormick Reaper Co. battled the police for several days, resulting in more than a dozen deaths. Industrial strife also created a new market for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency as Pinkerton agents were hired by management to put down labor uprisings — from the Pullman Strike in 1894 to the Ludlow Massacre at the coal mines in Ludlow, Colo. in 1914.
About the time of Chicago’s Haymarket riots, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded by Samuel Gompers, a cigarmaker from England. Gompers organized craft workers — garment cutters, leatherworkers, electricians and other skilled workers — and advocated the principle of collective bargaining to ensure a fair wage system and to protect craft workers against the accumulation of power by owners and managers in the new system of industrial capitalism.
There was also the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), established to organize unskilled and semi-skilled “blue collar” workers — this time along industry lines (steel, autos, etc.) rather than crafts. But this Labor Day period — despite the recent UPS strike and a good forecast for this last holiday of the summer of ’97 — my thoughts were not focused on either the “rest and relaxation” potential of the holiday or its historical significance. My thoughts, all weekend, kept coming back to what labor does. Labor builds things. Labor improves the world we live in. This is particularly important now because, as a society, we take building things for granted. In fact, environmental fundamentalists and other elements of our society often oppose building things and the other wealth and opportunity-creating things that labor does.
So during the run up to this past Labor Day, I was thinking a lot about what it is that working people do, what they create — and how important it is to recognize the achievements of people, sometimes working alone but often working together, to make things better.
My thinking along these lines was influenced by an incident that happened one Labor Day weekend when I was 17 years old. During a leisurely conversation with my father about goings-on in our town, Lafayette, Ind., I had been critical of people and projects, including the hard work of some friends and neighbors. The next morning when I got up to go to school, I found a note at my appointed place on the kitchen table. It was a poem (of sorts). It is called Builders and Wreckers. It was something my dad had tucked away in one of his books and was now rolling it out for my benefit. It read as follows:
“I saw them tearing a building down./ A gang of men in a dusty town./ With a Yo-heave-ho and a lusty yell,/ They swung a beam and a side wall fell.
“I asked the foreman, ‘Are these men as skilled as those you would hire if you were to build?’/ He laughed and said, ‘Oh no, indeed!/ These men can wreck in a day or two what it’s taken builders years to do.’
“I asked myself as I went my way,/ ‘What kind of role am I to play?/ Am I the builder who builds with care,/ Measuring life by the rule and square?/ Or, am I the wrecker, who roams the town, content with the role of tearing down?'”
This was my dad’s way of sending a message. It’s also a good message for Labor Day.