Labor Day Means Different Things to Different People

To some Labor Day means the end of summer, or the beginning of a school year, or long weekend. “To me Labor Day is a day of rest and relaxation; a celebration of hard work and labor rights,” said Carl Kalish, 59-year-old McLean resident, who has served 15 years in the Air Force.

While Labor Day means a day off from work to some, what does it mean when there is no work? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in July, up from 6 percent in July 2008.

Many people who celebrate Labor Day don’t know why it was started. They don’t know that unions are at the heart of the creation of Labor Day.

Labor Day began more than 100 years ago when workers of the Pullman Company fought against low wages and high rent for company-owned housing in Pullman, Ill., according to union and government histories. The American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, launched a nationwide boycott of all trains carrying Pullman cars. President Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 troops to put an end to the strike. Unions then declined until after the Great Depression.

In September of 1882, union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off work to march at Union Square in support of the holiday. In 1894, Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday.

Some who celebrate Labor Days share different views about unions. “I don’t believe in unions. They encourage selfishness and laziness,” said David Watkins, the director of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington.

“At first the original point of unions was to help the common man,” Watkins said. “Now people have the attitude that they’re more important than the agency.”

Clarence Coakley, a security employee in Washington, said “Unions are good as far as benefits.”

“If something happens, unions provide workers with protection and job security,” Coakley said.

Unions may provide stability to some, but studies show that most Americans aren’t part of unions. Labor statistics show that 16.1 million workers, or 12.4 percent, belonged to a union in 2008, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.