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August 30, 2005 > Labor Day

Labor Day

A day to honor American workers

by Linda Stone

Labor Day falls on the first Monday in September, a creation of the labor movement that began in 1882 by the Central Labor Union in New York City dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. The idea of celebrating a "workingmen's holiday" spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country. On June 28, 1894 Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday.

Each year since 1989 the U.S. Department of Labor posthumously honors those Americans "whose distinctive contributions to the field of labor have enhanced the quality of life of millions yesterday, today, and for generations to come." Below are some of the inductees who have been bestowed with this distinction.

Peter J. McGuire (1852 - 1906)
As the youthful founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in 1881, and for many years its General Secretary, Peter J. McGuire built the largest trade union of his time. Born in New York of immigrant parents, McGuire joined his friend, Samuel Gompers, to found the American Federation of Labor (AFL) also in 1881. McGuire led the great strikes of 1886 and 1890 which put the eight-hour workday on the nation's agenda.

William S. Harley (1880-1943)
Arthur Davidson (1881-1950)
Walter Davidson (1876-1942)
William A. Davidson (1870-1937)

In 1903, William Harley and Arthur and Walter Davidson pooled their resources to produce the first practical Harley-Davidson motorcycle. With part-time assistance from William A. Davidson, who fully joined the venture a few years later, the fledgling Motor Company turned out eight machines in 1905, which required hiring its first employee. By 1920, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, both in volume and in the size of its facilities. Today, with over 9,000 employees worldwide, Harley-Davidson builds well over 300,000 of the most well-known and popular motorcycles in the world.

Terence V. Powderly (1849 - 1924)
As leader of the Knights of Labor, the Nation's first successful trade union organization, Terence V. Powderly thrust the workers' needs to the fore for the first time in U.S. History. In the 1800's far in advance for the period, he sought the inclusion of blacks, women and Hispanics for full-fledged membership in his trade union. With labor struggling for a place at America's economic table, Powderly achieved national stature as the recognized spokesman for the workers' interest, and for the first time made organized labor a political force to be reckoned with.

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1830(?)-1930)
Irish-born Mother Jones was a champion of the country's weakest and neediest during the period of America's great industrial growth. Her flaming rhetoric and fearless campaigning helped swell the ranks of the United Mine Workers who called her the Miners' Angel. With the look of an angel and the tongue of a mule skinner, she tramped the land, venting her searing invective against the shame of child labor and those who exploited the working class.

Robert F. Wagner (1877-1953)
From an impoverished immigrant childhood to the exalted realm of the United States Senate where he crafted laws on behalf of society's neediest, Robert F. Wagner embodied the American dream. His pioneering legislation gave us hope during the depression of the thirties -- emergency relief, employment assistance, jobless help, aid for farmers, Social Security and, most importantly, labor's Magna Carta, the Wagner Act, guaranteeing workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. The author of early national housing legislation, he also fought for civil rights laws in advance of his time.

1990 Henry J. Kaiser (1882-1967)
He rose from obscurity in the finest rags-to-riches tradition to become a world-renowned entrepreneur. Henry J. Kaiser was a builder of roads, dams, ships and housing. He established giant businesses in cement, aluminum, chemicals, steel, tourism and health care. His many projects put thousands to work during the depression of the thirties and his massive shipbuilding during World War II was a decisive factor in winning the war. A "can-do" capitalist, he was still fair and equitable with his employees, worked freely and cooperatively with their unions and earned the respect and admiration of the trade union movement.

Samuel Gompers (1850-1924)
As a cigar-maker who, in 1886, became the first president of the newly-formed American Federation of Labor, he established the pattern of labor's struggles for improved working conditions. Often against the wishes of more radical elements of the labor movement, Gompers favored indigenous approaches to workers' problems, preferring to operate within American institutions rather than in opposition to them.

John L. Lewis (1880-1969)
President of the United Mine Workers for over four decades, he won for his members the highest wages of any of the major industries of the period, and one of the first employer-paid health and retirement systems. A strong proponent of industrial unionism, he revitalized the U.S. labor movement in the thirties with the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, bringing hundreds of thousands of workers into the new CIO. The controversial John L. Lewis was one of the most admired, feared, effective and colorful trade unionists in American history.

George Meany (1894-1980)
As head of the American labor movement for over a quarter of a century, George Meany was a towering figure of strength and integrity -- organized labor's most influential force on the national scene. A leader in the fight for labor unity, he became the first president of the merged AFL and CIO. As a steadfast voice for the common good, he led the struggle for improved social security, unemployment insurance, work safety and health, medical care and housing. On the world stage he was an implacable foe of totalitarianism from both the left and the right, and personified for millions the image of free American trade unionism.

Frances Perkins (1880-1965)
Secretary of Labor during the Great Depression when there were 13 million jobless - one quarter of the workforce, she moved quickly to help create and administer landmark legislation to lead the Nation out of its economic paralysis. Frances Perkins directed the formulation and enactment of the Social Security Act - perhaps the most important piece of social legislation in U.S. history.

Philip Randolph (1889-1979)
Acknowledged as the greatest black labor leader in American history, A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and pioneered in advancing racial equality within the labor movement. As a long-time crusader for civil rights, he pressured President Roosevelt to order an end to discrimination in war industries and President Truman to ban discrimination in federal employment and the armed services.

Mary Anderson (1872-1964)
From a domestic worker to factory employee to trade union leader, Swedish-born Mary Anderson was a tireless champion of women in the workplace. Director of the Women's Bureau for a quarter century, she was the most influential of all women in Federal service.

Sidney Hillman (1887-1946)
First president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, he was organized labor's foremost "statesman." As both idealist and pragmatist, he fought for improved wages and hours, eliminated sweat-shop working conditions for his members, and in 1914 established a system of arbitration still in universal use today. A founder of the CIO, he established labor as a major political force. Allied with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he helped forge the New Deal of the 1930's, making possible the achievement of such legislation as the Fair Labor Standards Act, and marshaled labor's monumental role in producing our country's tools of victory during World War II.

Cesar Chavez (1927-1993)
One of the most beloved and electrifying figures in labor history, Cesar Chavez rose from fruit and vegetable picker to leadership of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO. Intensely spiritual, he merged the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. into a philosophy of non-violence, confounding his opponents and assuring eventual success in his efforts to bring recognition, dignity and a better life to countless migrant farm workers following years of impoverishment and discrimination.


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