We live in a very different world today than when Labor Day was a local/regional holiday. The first Labor Day parade was held on September 5, 1882 in New York City when 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march. The “workingman’s holiday” didn’t become a national event until 1894 following the American Railroad Union’s strike against the Pullman Palace Car company, protesting wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. Riots followed the government’s intervention (they sent in troops to break up the strike) and more than a dozen workers died. To repair ties with American workers, and the unions, Congress made Labor Day a holiday.
West Virginia’s labor history has been an interesting one. The first (and I’m pretty sure only) time the federal government bombed Americans on US soil happened in West Virginia during the 1921 Miner’s March on Logan. There have been scores of strikes, marches and protests over the last hundred years, in the coal industry and in others. Growing up, my dad was in a union and I remember my mother’s worry when he was facing a potential strike. (I think they went out for a couple days, but it was quickly resolved.) There were other times a strike was possible, but it was averted by last-minute negotiations.
One hundred and twenty years later, union membership has waned significantly (although there are still some very strong labor unions) and one-third of Americans work for small companies (fewer than 50 employees). Employment conditions have certainly changed, too. The strikes and boycotts of the industrial revolution led to the eight-hour work day and 40-hour work week, with paid vacation time, rules on child labor and many of the other benefits we consider standard.
In some ways, we are going through a new revolution; this time it is a technical one. As a nation we still produce coal and steel, cars and many, many other things. Technology and automation allow us to do the same jobs with fewer people. These changes hurt. People lose jobs they expected to have their entire lives. Groups like What’s Next, West Virginia? and Create West Virginia are interested in capitalizing on the work ethic and strength of the West Virginia worker and revolutionizing this state.
While the original purpose of Labor Day may have been to appease the labor unions and the labor movement, I think it was a tribute to the American worker regardless of where they work. On this upcoming Labor Day, enjoy the traditional end of summer; attend a football game or a picnic…or both.
At the same time, think about how you can create a new West Virginia. And ask yourself What’s Next?.