Did you have a happy Immigration Day last week?
Make no mistake about it. Immigration Day — more commonly known as Labor Day — is a time originally intended to celebrate the contribution of the working man (and woman) to the nation.
It’s pretty easy to trace the roots of Labor Day back to its origins. All that’s needed is a basic understanding of inhuman nature and heroism.
The inhuman nature I’m referring to has an emblematic quality: capitalism’s chronic and unquenchable desire for cheap labor blended with the equally inescapable American reliance on and belief in racism.
It may seem odd today but while racism has retained its longstanding anti-black-and-brown presence in America to this day, the waves of immigrants that flooded the country’s major cities included refugee Germans who hated refugee Irish who hated refugee Italians who hated refugee Jews. Racism was and in many cases remains an equal-opportunity plague.
Nevertheless, some of racism’s victims fought for their place in American society. There’s no more telling nor inspiring example of this effort than the battle begun among workers for a job that no longer exists.
In the wake of the Civil War, railroad magnate George Pullman sought out freed slaves and immigrants to work as porters on his sleeper cars. Their job involved menial but essential tasks, everything from shining (white passengers’) shoes to hauling luggage. But by the late 1800s, poor working conditions coupled with an extreme pay cut triggered Pullman workers to organize the first workers’ union. Not much later, they launched the first American workers’ strike.
Thirty union members were killed during that strike. While it was not immediately successful, the fuse that ignited the call for fair working conditions for hard-working but disenfranchised American workers was lit. Many more deaths would result from unionizing efforts in coming years. And many more unions.
In the end, it was the unions that instituted and made Labor Day a national holiday. As with so many other such “celebrations,” the parades and pronouncements have pretty much passed into the mists of a forgotten past. Unionism was rarely as free of racism and white nationalism as our official history would have it.
Union hero and AFL founder Samuel Gompers was a foreign-born Jew who was as complete a segregationist as his friend Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, you’ll remember, gave us World War I, described as “the war to end all wars.” Gompers lobbied for and secured the end of child labor and made the eight-hour workday the standard it remains today.
Both achievements, and all the pain they encompassed, are well worth remembering these days.