The first Labor Day Parade was held here in New York on September 5, 1882.
Thousands of workers assembled at City Hall, marched to Union Square and then paraded to Wendel’s Elm Park on 42d Street for a picnic, concert and speeches. Among the banners held by marchers, the Times noted were: “Labor Creates All Wealth” and “Eight Hours Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for Recreation.” There were picnics all around the city. Workers and their families enjoyed stew, homemade bread and apple pie. After the speeches, they listened to German singing societies and Irish fiddlers and danced to union bands. That night, fireworks illuminated the skies.
The words of the old union song “Solidarity Forever” seem appropriate to describe the mood of those workers and their families. That song, a parody of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, was intended to inspire union members with its words:
“Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one---
“But the union makes us strong---
For the union makes us strong.”
Union leaders wanted Labor Day to be both a gathering of individual families and the larger, union family. “Solidarity Forever” is probably the most famous union anthem ever----created to inspire the followers of the labor movement. And for many years it has.
Back in 1910 Samuel Gompers, the elder statesman, considered the George Washington of the labor movement, wrote of Labor Day in the New York Times: “Organized labor in its essence presents a rational, hence a peaceful, means for the introduction of normal, fair and just conditions for all…..It is in the best sense the modern knighthood in defense of the toiling men, women and children of our day and of the future.”
For decades the Gompers vision guided the leaders of labor as unions were established and organized labor took its place on the national political stage. But the power of unions, which flourished under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, has been in decline for many years.
According to federal statistics, union membership has fallen dramatically in recent years. Part of this decline is attributed to large-scale layoffs in the auto industry and other manufacturing jobs. For many years, unions flourished in manufacturing. Now, government workers have become the bulwark of the labor movement.
Labor leaders were delighted with Obama’s victory in 2008 but some are disillusioned now. They expected more support from the White House.
A recent Gallup poll finds that support of Americans for labor unions has been falling off year by year. It was as high as 75 percent in the 1950s. It’s below 50 percent now. In 2007 the city’s Central Labor Council called off the annual parade. I have covered many Labor Day parades over the years, and the decline in audience numbers is apparent.
So we are left with memories of a labor movement that was stronger and probably more relevant to the every day lives of New Yorkers and Americans. Like the Model T Ford and the juke box, it seems to be gone. And with it the spirit of labor as we knew it seems to be gone too.