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Illustration: Labor Day

M. Ryder , Tribune Media Services

Labor Day: A 1938 viewpoint

  • Article by: Editorial Board
  • Star Tribune
  • September 2, 2013 - 12:12 PM

{Reprinted from the Sept. 5, 1938, edition of the Minneapolis Tribune.}

If Labor day signified merely a laying aside of tools and a devotion to pleasurable leisure, it would not have today such sanction of law and of public opinion as it enjoys in the several states.

It is a day that is dedicated to an idea rather than to men — to labor rather than to laborers, but it is an idea having to do with the rights and the happiness of men. It connotes human fellowship, stresses the dignity of worthy toil, invokes the spirit of mutual helpfulness, pays due respect to the social obligation known as service, visualizes the man-power that produces tangible things, and points the reasonable demand of industrial justice. If it fails in any or all of these respects, it falls short of what it should be and of what its original sponsors years ago intended it should be.

It is now more than 50 years since the Central Labor Union of New York City took the first steps to have one day in the year set aside “as a general holiday for the laboring classes.” It was not until 1923, however, that every state in the union joined in its observance. The long interval between 1882 and 1923 covers an important period in the development of the organized labor movement in America, including as it does the development and rise to power of the unions.

The first resolution proposing a Labor day suggested that the occasion be marked by a demonstration, such as a street parade, “which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” This idea has continued to animate most Labor day celebrations although the character of the observance has been somewhat altered in the last few years.

The purpose of Labor day continues to be the same, that of focusing public attention on the aims, ideals and achievements of the workers, but the emphasis and the medium of expression have been altered. Organized labor has consistently endeavored to prevent Labor day from becoming just another holiday, and within limits it has succeeded. Because its finest and deepest sentiments have been kept alive, the one day in the year which Samuel Gompers described as having been “secured by the toilers to give genuine dignity and worth to the underlying motives of the cause of organized labor” has remained one of unique significance.

There is much in the present scene which labor can look upon with genuine satisfaction. The American Federation of Labor, in its monthly survey of business issued last Friday, hailed the marked upturn in workers’ purchasing power and increased investments of private capital in industry as sure signs better business days are at hand. Department of agriculture figures were cited showing total monthly income of non-farm workers increased by $31,000,000 in July.

“This gain in private industry,” the AFL observed “supplies more than seven times as much buying power as that provided by increasing WPA work, for WPA added only $5,000,000 to its pay rolls in July. In June WPA added $8,000,000, so that the buying power added by industry in one month almost triples that added by WPA in two months.”

Federal reserve board figures were cited showing commercial loans made by member banks increased from $3,865,000,000 at the beginning of August to $3,890,000,000 on August 24. Furthermore securities to provide new capital for industrial purposes jumped from an average of $32,000,000 per month in the first five months to $199,000,000 in June and $31,000,000 in July. The federation reported records for more than 1,000,000 union members showed employment gains in August were larger than any month his year, estimating there were 11,344,000 unemployed in July.

Promising as this picture is, there is much in the current scene which should give labor leaders cause for concern, principal of which is the internal strife within the ranks of organized labor. The “esprit de corps” which the first Labor day was to exemplify is sadly missing today. The battle for supremacy between the AFL and the CIO perhaps the most complicating phase of the present labor situation and the “innocent bystanders” both within and without the unions have suffered as the conflict has grown more intense. Whatever may be the outcome of this conflict, and that is anything but foregone, some of the most serious dangers to the labor movement as a whole are internal in their nature. It is to be hoped that another Labor day will find these dangers overcome.

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