Judging by the store ads in my Sunday paper, Labor Day means nothing more to most Americans than a day off for shopping and barbeques. A hundred years ago, having a special holiday to honor working people seemed much more important. People felt united as workers, as employees struggling to decent working conditions. One of the triumphs of the labor movement was the establishment of the Department of Labor in May 1913.
Why was it such a big deal? Well, despite the lack of enthusiasm in the Washington establishment, union leaders across the country hoped that having a voice for labor in the cabinet would make a difference. And believe it or not it has. For one thing it changed the composition of the cabinet to include the non-wealthy. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s cabinet in the 1950s was called “Nine millionaires and a plumber” Can you guess which department the plumber headed?
Take a look at the website for the Dept. of Labor and look at the timeline there. You’ll be surprised at the changes that started at the department.
• Supported the Workman’s Compensation Act to get benefits for injured workers
• Started the women’s bureau in 1920
• Started collecting unemployment statistics—previously had only collected employment statistics and not worried about the unemployed
• Limited working hours for children
• Pushed to get Social Security benefits for workers
Perhaps as we share a holiday with family and friends, we should spare a thought for the people who fought to bring us some measure of security in our jobs.
I find it interesting to think about the women who were leaders in the early labor movement. Frances Perkins, the longest serving Secretary of Labor is largely responsible for shepherding Social Security and other New Deal programs through Congress. Her method of being a leader in a man’s world of politics was to downplay her femininity and her sexuality. She was famous for wearing drab, old-fashioned clothes and at social gatherings was not seen as a threat to the wives of her colleagues. Perhaps at that time in Washington her nonthreatening appearance was an important part of her being able to outmaneuver those husbands in politics.
An even earlier labor leader, Mary Harris or “Mother Jones” took the same approach. She claimed to be older than she really was and she too wore old-fashioned black dresses. She gloried in being called “Mother”. Surely there was no better way for her to protect herself from unwanted sexual advances or harassment. She was able to win many laborbattles by enabling male workers to take the lead and fight the bosses to achieve some famous labor victories. There isn’t time here to go into the wonderful story of how Mother Jones won so many victories for “her boys”. They are well told in Elliott J. Gorn’s biography Mother Jones; the Most Dangerous Woman in America. But let’s raise a toast and remember an early verse written in her honor in the United Mine Workers Journal:
We love her for her constant voice.
Raised ever ‘gainst wrongs and ills,
For healing the bodies, bruised and torn,
In the factories, mines and mills…