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

Michael A. Smith: 409-683-5206;​.


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(11) comments

Bailey Jones

The Golden Age of Labor - before "management" ruled the land. Jewelers, piano makers, cigar rollers, brick layers, cotton screwmen, tinners, tanners, teamsters, builders, railwaymen, and all the rest - this was a time when skill and pride in one's work, and respect for the labor of others was the order of the day.

My father's uncle, Bailey Birdsong, was a conductor on one of the passenger railroads that connected small town Texas in those days. My dad's eyes would light up remembering his uncle's fancy uniform, his pocket watch, the pride and respect commanded by such a position. When WW2 came, my maternal grandfather - after a decade of depression era unemployment and alcoholism, gained a job as a telegraph operator in the Katy depot in Texarkana. That job saved his life, and his family. Among my most prized possessions are his telegraph key and sounder, and his Hamilton "Railway Special" pocket watch. The wooden base of his telegraph key bears the carved inscription "K9JJL". This was the ham radio handle of his oldest daughter, my aunt, who had moved to Indiana to work a union job at a US Rubber plant making tires and fire hoses. She married a fellow union worker and after 35 years of hard work, retired back to Arkansas, still in her 50s, with a full pension.

That was the world of labor that I was brought up in. These days it seems that the worth of a laborer is no more than whatever the market says it is. Labor has become a commodity - a "human resource" - just one more entry on the debit side of the ledger. Meanwhile, the amount of wealth that one can reap by exploiting the labor of others seemingly has no limit. The dreams of those laborers of days past - the simple dreams of pride, and skill, and worth, of being able to take care of a family - are in the rearview mirror for many Americans. The minimum wage is a poverty wage. The best jobs are sent overseas where "human resources" can be had at bargain-basement rates. Labor has lost its teeth. For too many, a job - if you can find one - is just a job, tenuous and unrewarded. The great American middle class is in financial and political decline while the wealth and power of those who reap the rewards of the labor of others grows and grows and grows - avarice unbound.

"Socialists" - those radical souls who brought you the 40 hour week, paid vacations and a living wage, that organized those great parades of tire makers and train conductors and telegraph operators who marched because they were proud of who they were - are out of fashion these days, it seems. And it shows.

Happy Labor Day! I hope you get the day off. With pay.

Diane Turski


George Croix

Few things have benefited the American people more than the early labor union movements that rebelled against unjust conditions and practices, and brought us all, anyone who has them, the benefits that would only rarely...very rarely... have been given without demand for them. Even supervisory/salaried personnel, sometimes, if not often, prone to a greatly misplaced sense of superiority, owe THEIR salary and benefits to Joe Worker and the people who stood up for him.

Few things hurt America more now as we try to recover from the Chinese plague set loose than unjust and self-serving demands by a few of these unions using threats as political bludgeons.

Honor the good, and abhor the bad.

In all things.....

Don Schlessinger


Charles Douglas

Ain't that the truth, I have had salary people tell me what Mr. Croix just said about the usefulness of unions and the devoted, focused work they once was known for,[thumbup]

Craig Mason

Now George didn’t you carry a picket sign in 1980? I personally strive to do my best every day I am in the refinery. There are many others that do as well. Unions just like police departments, political groups or any other organization have bad apples that taint the pool. I am proud of my service to the union and to the different companies I have had the pleasure to work for. Hope you all enjoyed the weekend.

George Croix

Hired in salaried from day 1, Craig. Thought you knew.

To my knowledge never cra__ed on my coworkers/crew members, though, in fact lost a couple promotions for NOT doing so.

Good unions are needed to keep bad supervision minimized.

Bad ones don’t police their own ranks….

I, personally, always thought our occasional interactions consisted of strong position but respect for the other guy…on both sides….

Craig Mason

I did not know that George. Lol

Yes I believe our interactions were always based on mutual respect, even though our positions may have been opposite. I am proud of the ways we interacted over the years.

Gary Miller

I worked at a union company for 33 years. I watched the union destroy the company. Unjust and self-serving demands were their weapon. Over staffing, overtime by stalling a needed job and union rules that increased cost without productivity. Unions have be come a way to suck the life from any interprise they get into. The great things they did in the past were wasted on greed today. Right to work laws have improved union conduct and should be national law.

Craig Mason

Gary are you enjoying that defined benefit pension plan? I am sure you enjoyed utilizing the retiree medical insurance as well. If you did thank your local union. The fact that folks enjoy these benefits then bitch about how they were acquired just dumbfounds me.

Ted Gillis

And Gary was there in the beginning, working for this first Pinkerton Gang.

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