We may hear more about “Back to School” sales this weekend than we do about why we celebrate Labor Day.
I’ll do my little part to rectify that problem.
Labor Day has been around in one form or another since the 1880s, highlighting the work of trade and labor organizations and their members. However, unions and workers have both taken a beating in recent decades, as financial interests have fought to rollback or restrict the gains made by the working classes over the years. I grew up in the South and saw first-hand the open hostility to unions. The powers that be wanted cheap labor and they used all sorts of tools to ensure that they succeeded.
I was reminded of the promise and challenge of Labor Day while reading one of my posts from 2015 on the designation of Pullman, just outside Chicago, as a National Monument.
Pullman, if you do not know the history, is a remarkably intact industrial town of historic buildings and landscapes. Located 13 miles south of downtown Chicago, it was built by industrialist George Pullman and through all the change that has taken place in this small community, it stands today as representative of the heart of the American Labor movement. Strikes that began in Pullman in 1893 and spread across the country led—in the long arc of history—to the establishment of Labor Day, a 40-hour work week, the weekend, overtime pay, safe workplace conditions, and the right to organize for higher wages and better opportunities. The first African-American Union—the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—had ties to Pullman. The men and women who worked and labored in Pullman—white and black—helped create the American middle class.
That’s why I found myself in Chicago on a cold, frigid, windy February morning back in 2015, as it isn’t often that I get to hear the President of the United States speak so eloquently about the work with which I’m engaged. At the National Trust, where I worked at the time, we were part of a coalition supporting this designation, and I was proud to join our team at the celebration.
President Obama told the stories of Pullman in deeply personal terms, as they related to his life, the life of his family, and to the life of all Americans.
“I want this younger generation; I want future generations to come learn about their past. Because I guarantee you there are a lot of young people right here in Chicago, just a few blocks away, living in this neighborhood who may not know that history.
I want future generations to know that while the Pullman porters helped push forward our rights to vote, and to work, and to live as equals, their legacy goes beyond even that. These men and women without rank, without wealth or title, became the bedrock of a new middle class. These men and women gave their children and grandchildren opportunities they never had.
Here in Chicago, one of those porter’s great-granddaughter had the chance to go to a great college and a great law school, and had the chance to work for the mayor, and had the chance to climb the ladder of success and serve as a leader in some of our cities’ most important institutions. And I know that because today she’s the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama.”
Then he continued, and the White House transcript includes the reaction from the crowd:
“So without this place, Michelle wouldn’t be where she was. There’s a reason why I’ve got one of the original copies of the program for the March on Washington, a march for jobs and justice, with A. Philip Randolph’s name right there as the first speaker, framed in my office. Because without Pullman, I might not be there. Of course without Michelle, I’d definitely not be there. (Laughter.) Whoever she married would be there. (Laughter and applause.)”
Then—in contrasting the great national parks of natural beauty with a place like Pullman—the President spoke directly to the students who filled the bleachers in the high school gymnasium, saying:
“To the young people here today, that’s what I hope you take away from this place. It is right that we think of our national monuments as these amazing vistas, and mountains, and rivers. But part of what we’re preserving here is also history. It’s also understanding that places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary. The places you live are extraordinary, which means you can be extraordinary. You can make something happen, the same way these workers here at Pullman made something happen.
That’s not to tell you that life is always going to be fair, or even that America will always live up to its ideals. But it is to teach us that no matter who you are, you stand on the shoulders of giants. You stand on the site of great historic movements. And that means you can initiate great historic movements by your own actions.”
It was a tremendous day of celebration. It was a day when one of the country’s most eloquent presidential speakers was able—because of what Pullman meant to him as a man, a husband, a father, a worker, and an American—to explain to all Americans why Pullman matters today, and tomorrow, and to future generations.
Many politicians, business owners, and financiers talk about “makers” and “takers” as if all that they accomplished came from their own hands. The story of Pullman, and so many other places that raised up the working classes into the greatest middle class the world has ever seen, stands in contrast, as testimony that what we “make” takes a community. We do well to recognize, honor, and fight for the rights of the laborers this Labor Day weekend and into the future.
More to come…
Image: Pullman (Photo Credit: Cynthia Lynn via National Trust for Historic Preservation)