Labor Day’s Local History, Present Actions
It should be a relatively quiet Labor Day, since the masses are at Burning Man and the rest of us are hampered by the Bay Bridge closure (check out transit alternatives to the bridge, which remains closed till 5 a.m. on Tuesday). As you fire up the barbie at home, though, you can mull the history of the holiday itself:
The first Monday in September was made a national holiday on June 28, 1894, as a tribute to the social and economic achievements of American workers.
San Francisco, no surprise, played a pivotal role in our country’s labor history. On May 9, 1934, the International Longshoremen’s Association led a strike for better pay and better hours. They were later joined by other workers; the picketing grew and intensified. On July 16 the strike spread throughout the city, and became known as the San Francisco General Strike.
The mass protest continued over four consecutive days. Two strikers died and one was wounded in a confrontation with police on “Bloody Thursday,” when hundreds of others were clubbed and gassed. The ensuing attention from the public and government officials had an impact, as the following year, the National Labor Relations Board was created, protecting the right of workers to organize into labor unions.
Speaking of local worker strikes and protests, it would seem that 2013 has been a banner year, what with recent activity surrounding BART, AC Transit, the Port of Oakland, area hospital strikes, yesterday’s fast-food walkout, today’s Oakland Airport strike, and much more. Doth we protest too much?
“When it comes to the number of strikes, the overall numbers have been declining for years,” says Kim Voss, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, by email, referring to national figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Voss notes that in recent decades number of strikes and lockouts have been “very low” compared with the 1950s, ‘60s and ’70s.
However, Fred Glass, on the faculty of the Labor and Community Studies Department at San Francisco City College and communications director for the California Federation of Teachers, says that may be changing in the Bay Area, particularly as workers and unions see the impact of direct action.
“There is a spike of militancy that is occurring in the Bay Area,” Glass says. “Part of it is coincidental, because of contracts that are coming due and the actions of workers who support their contract negotiators.
“But more importantly, there is a renewed willingness to use direct action. After a decline of those kinds of actions and seeing what it has brought workers – very little – there is a new willingness to engage. The Occupy movement reminded the unions that direct action is important.”
Workers are being moved to action, Glass says, because their share of the economy is declining. “In the period of prosperity this country enjoyed from post World War II up to the 1980s, a rising tide lifted all boats and the employing class prospered by innovating and sharing wealth with the workers.
“We are now in a period where the employing class’ share of income has been increasing at the expense of the working people.” Instead of lifting all boats, Glass says, “the employing class wants the waterfall, and the workers get the puddle.”
Happy Labor Day, everyone. Enjoy this old newsreel of the General Strike, from the Prelinger Archive: