Labor Day (May We Never Forget Those Bobbin Cones And Doilies!)

The cotton bobbin cone and the doily. Representing honored labor from two wonderful grandmothers.

Photo by Gary Rice

Ah, Labor Day. Time to invite the friends and family over for that picnic.  Time to check to see whether that barbecue sauce in the door of the fridge is still edible. Time to pull the plastic wrap off those dogs and clean that nasty looking stuff from off that backyard grill and from around the ring of your ketchup bottle.

Time, as well, to celebrate our symbolic end of summertime. Time to put away those white clothes and dig out those brown and orange sweaters. Time to find, and pump up, that old football and get ready for a great game of backyard tackle.

Time to remember too... remember what, exactly? For whom is Labor Day celebrated?

We don't seem to talk very much about Labor Day, do we? On Veterans Day, we honor America's veterans with long speeches and patriotic parades. On Memorial Day, we decorate the graves of the fallen. We remember the right things to do, as well as the right people to remember on those days, do we not?
When's the last time that you've read any real remembrances as to why Labor Day was founded, or for that matter, who founded it? (Actually, that question seems to be unresolved.)

When it was founded... and perhaps more importantly, why? Because, dear readers, Labor Day was founded in struggle and yes, at times, violence. It was founded because of a few very simple principles:  Beliefs that a working person should be paid fairly, should have safe job conditions, should have a work day that is limited in hours, and should have at least a little time during that day to pause for rest and refreshment. Most important was that there be a nationally recognized day of rest from the labors that built this great country of ours.

Other stuff, like paid vacation time, maternity leave, and dental care, would have to wait for awhile.
(And remember that children had to work back then too. In the big-city sweatshops and in the cotton fields of the south, children were taken from their classrooms and put to hard labor in the years following the Civil War, after slavery was supposedly abolished in this country. I can write "supposedly" here because anyone who really cares to knows that there are quite possibly more virtual "slaves" in this country now than there were in the days before the Civil War! We just pretend not to notice them, that's all. Just check out the statistics though. Whether those virtual "slaves" might be illegal immigrants, quietly working here "under the radar" and afraid to complain about their pay or working conditions, or perhaps those thousands of people who have been caught up in the horrible nightmare of human trafficking, there are indeed a great many virtual slaves among us...and this does not even include those who are forced to work for starvation wages in our present economic situation.)

First, with little, halting steps there came the union organizing, and then came the strikes. See, in the 19th century, when industry really got going and the huge factories and cotton and steel mills started up, there were no workers' rights at all. You worked as long as the boss wanted, and when and where he wanted, and if you got hurt or killed in the process, that was just too bad.

At first, those who tried to start up employee representation groups (unions) were simply fired. Later, many were shot, stabbed or burned to death, while their families looked on in horror or were killed right by their sides. Some of those early factories, mills, or mines were situated in "company towns" where the "law" was often controlled by the company itself and was often administered by their own private police forces.

Then there were the strikes, and they were many. So often they were brutally suppressed. These labor struggles continue on down to the present day, as America seems to constantly lose more jobs to outsourcing and offshore manufacturing. International agreements such as NAFTA and DR-CAFTA may have increased trade with our Canadian and Latin American neighbors, but at the same time the cost in American jobs has been significant, as more and more companies leave our shores for cheaper labor and operating expenses elsewhere. In the last fifty years America seems to have lost most, or at times virtually all, of our jobs relating to the manufacture of clothing, textiles, electronics, photographic and musical equipment, and too many other smaller enterprises to even begin to count them all. Sometimes the unions get blamed for this outsourcing, and sometimes there are those who think that the days of people needing unions has passed. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my own honest opinion.

As a union musician, for example, I can remember trying to convince other musicians to join the union, and all too often their response was that they were getting along just fine without it. At the same time, it should be noted that 40 years ago, bands often worked the local non-union club scene for about $250. These days, they so often go out for the same money. See anything wrong with that picture?

I've been honored to be a part of a union workforce for most of my life. In addition to my musicians' union membership, I've served my teachers' association in a number of ways over the years, back when I was in the classroom, and I continue to be part of a retired association of educators.

I only hope that you all will realize during this Labor Day time that every vacation, every benefit, every shortened work day, and every medical or retirement package was originally developed through the struggles (and sometimes, deaths) of working men, women, and yes, even children, over the years.

In my home, one of my prize possessions is a simple bobbin cone from a cotton mill where my one grandmother worked for pennies a day. She once wisely told me that she never wanted me to forget where I came from. Another prize of mine would be a beautiful doily, made by my other grandmother (that the bobbin cone is sitting on) in the photo. She made it at a time when money was short, and simple string and a crochet hook were all that it took to create sublime beauty at a time when women could not even vote. She is the one who encouraged me to build the vocabulary that I apply for you here.

As you can easily see, the labors from those two lovely ladies continue to benefit others to this very day.
This column is a tribute to those ladies, and to the thousands of men, women, and yes, children, who struggled and sometimes perished in the struggles of the labor movement in this country.

The struggle continues. These days, as much as ever. Happy Labor Day to all!

Read More on Pulse of the City
Volume 6, Issue 18, Posted 2:15 AM, 09.08.2010