This Monday is Labor Day, and I hope you’re all taking advantage of the three-day weekend. I know I certainly will be! It’s become somewhat of a tradition for me to visit sites associated with labor history over the holiday weekend, to remind myself of the sacrifices made by labor to ensure the health, safety, and prosperity of American workers.
Last year, I spent the day touring the Vermont countryside amid old textile mills and granite quarries. This year, I’ll be right here at home among the company towns and coal mine ruins of Mason County.
First declared a public holiday in Oregon in 1887 and declared a federal holiday by President Cleveland in 1894, the first notice I can find of any local celebration is in 1896. That year, our old friend Editor Tippett noted that “Monday was Labor Day and the Register building was the only building in town that was decorated for the occasion.” It’s worth noting here that the federal declaration only made it a holiday for federal employees. West Virginia, long the domain of coal barons, did not declare it a holiday until 1905, under Governor William M.O. Dawson.
The next year, Point Pleasant held its first major Labor Day celebration with half a dozen labor unions participating. The Iron Molders, American Federation of Labor, Shipwright Joiners and Chalkers, House Carpenters, Retail Clerks, and Brick Masons all took part in a grand parade, followed by a day of activities such as bicycle races, sack races, and pie eating contests. Keeping in mind that in 1906 many industries still openly fought the unions, especially here in West Virginia, such a display was bold.
In 1907, the Register took it a step further. The week before Labor Day, the newspaper’s masthead proclaimed in bold letters, “In Union There is Strength.” Again, the labor unions of Point Pleasant held a grand parade, this time adding the Longshoremen to their ranks. In Point Pleasant, and nationwide, the union movement was growing.
Over the next fifty years, the labor unions’ increasing power drove change in American industry. The United Mine Workers, United Steel Workers, United Auto Workers, American Federation of Labor, Congress of Industrial Organizations, and dozens of other unions consistently grew their membership, especially during the Great Depression and New Deal eras.
Under the likes of Samuel Gompers, John Lewis, Walter Reuther, and Margaret Dreier Robins, and alongside powerful allies such as President Franklin Roosevelt and Senators Bob La Follette and Wagner, those major unions drove legislative reform that we today take for granted. This Labor Day, remember that we can thank the unions for collective bargaining, minimum wage, overtime pay, the 8-hour work day, 40-hour work week, weekends, Social Security, unemployment insurance, health insurance, child labor and workplace safety laws, pension and retirement funds, and wrongful termination laws, to name only a few benefits of the century-long fight.
‘Tis the reason for the season, or the long weekend I should say. As you relax and celebrate this Labor Day, remember those victories, and the long, bloody fight to win them.
Remember the dead at Homestead, Lattimer, Paint Creek, Ludlow, Blair Mountain, and Bloody Harlan. And not only in the coal and steel wars, remember the dead in the Monongah Mine Explosion and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Take pride in the victories of labor, then as the immortal Mother Jones often said, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
Information from the Weekly Register and general histories of the labor movement in the United States.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.