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Glazer: A toast to the working stiffs who make the holiday

POSTED: September 3, 2010 1:00 a.m.

Fire up the grill and ice down the beer. It's Labor Day weekend, that clear division between summer and fall. It's time for one last day on the beach or by the pool.

My mailboxes, both e-mail and snail mail, are full of ads for Labor Day sales. Apparently the best way to honor the social and economic achievements of American workers is to buy lots of stuff, much of it manufactured in other countries. Go figure.

It's also time to pack away those white shoes, ladies. I don't care what the Fashion Network says, my mom was adamant: White shoes after Labor Day are simply gauche.

So how did we come to have this late summer respite? The origins of the federal holiday aren't a feel-good story of a desire to celebrate the contributions of the working man. Rather, its roots are mired in workers' repression and political gamesmanship.

Back in 1882, when the concept of a Labor Day commemoration was being discussed by labor unions, the first Monday in September was chosen because it filled a holiday void halfway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Trust a working man to make such a practical suggestion.

For 12 years, labor unions celebrated this unofficial holiday, starting in New York City and spreading throughout the country.

In 1893, faced with an economic depression, the Pullman Co., maker of the namesake railroad cars, began lowering wages. Their workers in Pullman, Ill., lived in houses provided by the company. Their rents were not adjusted to reflect the new salaries. Workers began walking off the job.

The American Railway Union picked up the cause and railroad workers across the country boycotted trains that carried Pullman cars.

President Grover Cleveland, citing the delay to the mail system, declared the strike illegal and sent 12,000 troops to break it or, as he put it, "If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a postcard in Chicago that card will be delivered." Two strikers were killed in the violence that erupted near Chicago.

Popular opposition to these heavy-handed tactics during the Pullman strike led Cleveland to rush Labor Day legislation through Congress. It passed unanimously on June 28, 1894, just six days after the end of the Pullman strike.

Fat lot of good that appeasement effort did him. He lost the Democratic nomination to William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

Although the unions were instrumental in creating the Labor Day holiday, unions are no longer a driving force in the workplace. American union membership in the private sector has fallen below 9 percent.

As a lineman for the Georgia Power Co., my father was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. There were a couple of times when it looked as though contract negotiations were going to break down and there was the strong possibility of a strike.

During those tense times, I remember him sitting up late, chain smoking his Winstons and staring off into space.

The last thing he would have chosen to do was walk off of a job he loved, but if the union had called, he would have answered. During his 32-year career, ending in 1980, he never had to walk a picket line. There was, however, a strike the year after he died. So it goes.

A few years ago, Gainesville High School's theater department presented "Working," the Stephen Schwartz musical based on the book by oral historian Studs Terkel.

It chronicled a day in the life of some average American workers. Characters included an ironworker, a waitress, a stone mason, a trucker, a housewife, a UPS delivery man, a teacher, a mill worker, a supermarket checker and a retiree.

The stone mason's song brilliantly illustrated the satisfaction that comes from seeing the results of one's labors:

"He builds a house/ With his hands/ Thirty years go by/ It stands/ It stands where nothing stood /A house of stone/ The mason sleeps real good."

This weekend, as you lounge around the pool or line up at the checkout with armloads of bargain-priced jeans, take a moment to reflect on the hands that bottled your beer, ground your hamburger, sewed those clothes, processed your purchase and, yes, printed and delivered your newspaper.

Then reach around and pat yourself on the back. We're all in this together and, together, we all make it work.

Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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