It’s Labor Day weekend. How many people still connect this with a labor movement, unions, workers rights? Any reference to the real history of the holiday would sound like “socialism” in the lean right populist echo chamber. So how do we approach it? “The official end of summer.” The President’s weekly is about “Honoring the American Worker.” “Worker” sounds very suspicious. But Labor Day’s roots are in the labor movement. Find out more at the Department of Labor link. Their description scratches the surface.
Labor Day’s been around since 1882 during the Gilded Age when wealthy industrialists spent their 8 month summers in their cottages (read mansions) in Newport and other resort communities to forget the strife and struggles of business, the coal workers, railroad workers, and demands for reasonable working hours, wages, and the end of child labor and exploitation. The cottage was a place not to just get away, but to build a world anew; a utopia populated by those that only you invite to inhabit the space for as long or as little as you wish. Find an Edith Wharton novel for that side of the story.
Here is a photo from my August visit to the The Elms in Newport, owned by coal baron Edward Julius Berwind. Berwind was one of the largest singular owner of coal mines and the last to negotiate with workers who wanted to organize. In 1922 workers went on strike against the Berwind-White Mining company demanding better wages and living conditions for workers and their families in the mining towns.
According to the 1922 New York City report on conditions of the Berwind-White mines in western Pennsylvania:
At all the mines which the Committee visited, it found most of the women and children barefooted and scantily clad. The feet and limbs of most of these unfortunates, particularly those of the children, were scarred and bleeding from walking on hard ice, through underbrush and over stone. The picture was most depressing.
The influences of all the years of meagre living and struggle for mere existence among these barren hills, had left an imprint on these miners and their families, that amounted almost to despair. Their women folks become old and hollow-eyed before their time. The children were found undersized, and with supplicating eyes begging for help.
Most of the miners in Somerset County are Poles, Russians, Slovaks, Hungarians, with a few Welsh and very few Irish. Many of them have been there for many years. In some instances, two generations have been working in these mines and the second generation is just as poor as was the first.
The Elms is a wonderful example of Gilded Age architecture and refinery including one of the earliest examples of home electricity and other domestic technologies. The Elms removes one from considering the stark and harsh realities on which it stands. As domesticity has become fashionable, we can now hear the stories of the backstairs staff, the cooks, butlers, maids and pantry patter. At what point will the tour guides tell the rest of the story of how all this beauty was financed? When will labor of any kind be part of the story of the ascent to wealth? Will our tour guide, who described one of the Brown family’s source of wealth as “international enterprises,” reduce tourism prospects if she drops the euphemism and just call it by its proper name – “slave trade.” I’m just asking for the record.
Today the President brings the Labor story to date by focusing on the middle class; the workers who reap the rewards of their labor. The working poor are unfortunately the reality in many labor scenarios if they have work at all. We’re often told a job is not entitled; yet work and/or an occupation is essential to survival. Some politicians would prefer to live in their gilded cages, untouched by workers issues or only dealing with the union front office. Big business is only concerned with profits and losses for better and worse. But even those who now represent the spirit that brought about the reason for Labor Day, have in some sense lost their way under the elms.
President’s weekly message can be heard here.