Monday marks the nation’s 127th official observance of Labor Day.
Below is a trip through news reports of Labor Days past via the archives of Texas’ oldest newspaper.
The first rally that led to what we now call Labor Day was held in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.
On the front page of the next day’s issue, The Daily News reported:
“In the great labor demonstration today, fully 150 organizations were represented and there were at least 20,000 men in line. ...
“The Newark jewelers turned out over 500 strong, piano-makers and cigar-makers 2,000 each and bricklayers 1,000. There were many red flags in line and many of the bands played the Marseillaise.
“The mottos carried were: Pay No Rent; All Men are Born Alike and Equal; Labor Built this Republic, Labor Should Rule It; No Man Can Make Land, No Man Should Own It,” etc.
In 1894, the year of the epic Pullman Strike that involved as many as 250,000 workers in 27 states, The Daily News reported 20,000 Labor Day marchers in New York City including “bands of women from the various assemblies such as the cloak makers ...”
In Boston 15,000 marched; in Chicago 12,000 marched in the rain; 4,000 marched at Fort Worth; and at a picnic in a San Antonio alderman’s yard following a “monster parade” of “all the unions of organized labor,” a populist recorded only as “Judge Gates” orated thusly:
“The nobility of today sprang from bandits, robbers and thieves of the early times. We have that very class of brigandage among us today. They come to us as railroad magnates, as oil kings and as landed proprietors.
“By securing legislation in their favor they compel us to pay tribute to them. If every man was guaranteed free access to the resources of nature there would be no want in this country.
“Instead thousands of men are tramping over the country seeking work; and because they demand their rights they are shot down by federal troops.
“Corporations and the government are dragging us down to slavery. But if people will take up the fight of universal right the people’s party will win their battle.”
In 1905, about 2,300 workers marched along streets “literally packed with people” for Galveston’s Labor Day Parade.
More than 500 cotton screwmen turned out in “brown linen suits with hats to match.”
The bookbinders followed in “dark coats and white duck trousers.” Men of the Retail Clerks’ Union walked, while “at least four carriages contained a dozen pretty salesladies dressed in white.”
Contingents of the Typographical Union, the Commercial Artists Union, the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen, the Bricklayers Union, the Postal Union, the Tinners Union, the Building Trades Union and the Carpenters Union, among others, also marched.
In 1930, The Daily News reported the “beach front yesterday was like a scene from the Arabian Nights as labor made holiday.”
“Young people, old people, visitors and home folks were out on the Boulevard and the beach as the September festival was celebrated in traditional style.”
By 1935, the phrase “Labor Day death toll” had entered the language of journalism. The Daily News reported “several near tragedies” as the “newly established life guard patrol” saved three people from drowning and 9-year-old Frances Smith, daughter of Lt. Cmdr. E.B. Smith of the Coast Guard cutter Saranac, was critically injured when a car ran onto the sidewalk in front her house on Avenue T.
An Associated Press story on the same page began: “Labor Day weekend, customary blight on the nation’s motoring safety, exacted its toll of lost lives and broken limbs with the fatalities mounting to 199 Monday night.”
Much has changed since that first Labor Day celebration years ago. Much remains the same, however. Working people still are behind the curve on wages, under pressure from rising rents and often feeling disadvantaged by the holders of capital.
All of those will to some extent still be issues for days ahead. On Monday, it would be good to take a minute to recall all those typographers, bookbinders, commercial artists, trainmen, teamsters, ironworkers, steel workers, bricklayers, postal workers, tinners, tanners, teachers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and ink-stained wretches who marched and bled and sometimes died for the rights we all still enjoy.
• Michael A. Smith