|First Labor Day parade, Union Square, New York, 1882.|
— Stuart Appelbaum, President, Jewish Labor Committee
This year, Labor Day falls during the same week as Rosh Hashana. While Labor Day may be considered by many to be the summer’s last hurrah, or another shopping day, its original purpose was to honor the contribution that the labor movement has made to American society. Just as in the first week of the Jewish “Days of Awe” – from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, when we strive to make amends for interpersonal sins, and hope that we can do better in the year to come – we can and should see Labor Day as a time to reflect, and to become better, by respecting and honoring those who labor.
More after the jump.
The first Labor Day in the United States was celebrated back in 1882 in New York City, and soon spread to communities across the country. Twelve years later, in the aftermath of the bloody 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland made it a priority to secure legislation making Labor Day a national holiday. It was indeed passed, unanimously, in Congress and signed into law six days after the end of the strike. For more than a century, all 50 states have made Labor Day a state holiday, originally devoted to “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community.
Throughout its history, the American labor movement has been standing up for the needs of working men and women and their families – first and foremost in representing workers at the bargaining table, to secure decent contracts, decent working conditions, and decent benefits. The labor movement has secured benefits for all of us, not just union members – from the fight 75 years ago for Social Security, to the fight 45 years ago to establish Medicare, and most recently, in the struggle for health care reform. It was American unions who led the fight for minimum wage laws, and then for increases to keep up with the increased cost of living.
But this is not just about history – it is about today. The struggle to improve the lives of workers is just as necessary today as it was in earlier decades.
That’s why the labor movement and its allies, including the Jewish Labor Committee, marched this year on Wall Street to call for government programs that focus on the working and living conditions of all workers, not just the CEOs of large corporations. That’s why this past winter, more than 200 rabbis heeded our call and signed onto a petition vowing to boycott three Boston area hotels until the layoffs of the “Hyatt 100” were reversed; rabbis, cantors, and other Jewish communal leaders are committing themselves to continue the struggle to improve the working conditions of all hotel workers. That’s why we fight against corporations such as Mott’s, that, in spite of earning record profits, are trying to force their workers to accept wage and benefits cuts. That’s why we advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, and march to end the abuses against farm workers who pick our fruits and vegetables, or factory workers who toil in sweatshops to make our clothes, whether they are union members or not.
This year, we urge that national, state and local priorities serve the needs of working people as well as those currently unemployed. Especially now, more government spending, targeted to create decent, well-paying jobs, is needed.
This year, let us work to pass meaningful government legislation, from a bill to guarantee paid sick leave for all workers to the Employee Free Choice Act. These can make real differences in the lives of working families. The Jewish Labor Committee is committed to doing everything possible to pass this much-needed legislation – and we urge our members and friends to do the same.
Standing up for working families encompasses a range of strategies, and a range of possibilities. During 2010’s Labor Day and as the Jewish New Year of 5771 begins, we hope that many in the Jewish community will join us as we roll up our sleeves to work with our partners — in the trade union movement, within the Jewish community, and all who are determined to bring forth a society based on true economic justice and prosperity for all.