This newspaper recorded the events of Labor Day 1904 with unusual enthusiasm, describing a parade of more than 2,000 union members in Bangor as “filled with good-fellowship and triumph … a potent example typified in thousands of silent, stalwart men, of the strength and force and dignity which labor organization brings.”
In particular it admired the keynote address — “admirably clear, concise and forceful illuminated by shafts of keen, at times almost satirical wit” — delivered by J.F. Sheehan of Massachusetts, who laid the groundwork for the development of unions.
“It is often said that the union men of America are discontented,” Sheehan said. “If this be so — and I deny it not — then it is a virtue and not a vice. The discontent that urges a man to rise above the lowly station where his lot is cast; that makes more money, better homes, nobler men and truer women; that has shortened the hours of labor and improved the scale of pay; that has given the United States the political liberty and social equality which it enjoys now; and which lastly, the trade unions of the land are going to ferment until it has equalized the scale between employers and employed until the American working man can stand up to all the world and say: ‘I am a man, with a man’s feelings and a man’s rights; I will be the faithful employ of any; but the unconsidered slave of none’ — this discontent, I say, must be hailed as a glory rather than as a sin!”
Ever since President Grover Cleveland signed an act making the first Monday in September a legal holiday to honor America’s workers, Labor Day has been a holiday of conflicting themes, an odd mixture of the somber and the frivolous. Even 19th century labor organizer Peter J. McGuire, credited with conceiving Labor Day, admitted the holiday designed to honor work was timed to “come at the most pleasant season of the year, nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and would fill a wide gap in the chronology of legal holidays.”
It is a gap filled with gusto. Americans, whether watching stock car races or baseball or, better still, enjoying the last real summer weekend outdoors with family and friends, seem always to enjoy themselves. Where once there were parades, barbecues rule the day.
Keeping in mind McGuire’s intent, today also provides the opportunity to assess how far the labor force has progressed, or failed to progress, over the years. The trend is not encouraging.
Unions today — particularly those representing public sector workers — are fighting a nationwide contempt. Organized labor has been demonized as the reason, at least in part, for the economic woes that still plague the nation. So-called right-to-work legislation, which would prevent organized labor unions from collecting representation fees as a condition of employment, has been introduced in many states, including Maine.
The connection between organized labor and wages generally was made clear several years ago in the annual report “The State of Working America” by Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein and Sylvia Allegretto of the Economic Policy Institute. They measured the decline of labor from about one-fourth of the working population a generation ago to about one-eighth by 2004.
Their conclusion is worth recalling today.
“This falling rate of unionization has lowered wages, not only because some workers no longer receive the higher union wage, but also because there is less pressure on nonunion employers to raise wages,” they wrote. The difference in wages and benefits between union and nonunion workers then was $30.76 per hour versus $18.11.
Stagnant wages have spawned efforts at the federal, state and local level to raise the minimum wage, which hasn’t changed in Maine since 2009. It is $7.50 per hour.
Overcoming nearly static wages will take a lot more than the festivities planned for today, but helping workers to the fruits of their labors never has been a picnic.