Michigan History

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The Labor Day march across the Mackinac Bridge led by Michigan's governor has replaced the Detroit march.

How labor won its day

By Patricia K. Zacharias / The Detroit News

September 4, 1997


Other chapters on organized labor:
  • The day Jimmy Hoffa didn't come home
  • Richard Frankensteen, young lion of the UAW
  • Mr. Ford, blacks and the UAW
  • The battle of the overpass

    Peter J. McGuire
    The Father of Labor Day, Peter J. McGuire of New York City, in 1882 introduced the idea for the holiday.
  •       McGuire introduced his idea formally at a meeting of the Central Labor Union on May 18,1882. "Let us have, a festive day during which a parade through the streets of the city would permit public tribute to American Industry," he said.

          The following September New York workers staged a parade up Broadway to Union Square. Few, if any, workers got the day off. Most were warned against marching in the parade with the threat of getting fired. Despite the warning, more than 10,000 workers showed up for the march. Led by mounted police, bricklayers in white aprons paraded with a band playing "Killarney." The marchers passed a reviewing stand crowded with Knights of Labor: a holiday was born. McGuire's holiday moved across the country as slowly as did recognition of the rights of the working man.

          Twelve years later, on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland, long a foe of organized labor, but under voter pressure, signed a Labor Day holiday bill. Earlier that same year, President Cleveland's most famous labor conflict, the Pullman strike in Chicago, had forced the president to call up federal troops. Employees of the Pullman Co., which produced sleeping cars for passenger trains, protested wage cuts. Led by Eugene V. Debs, the American Railway Union (ARU) in sympathy refused to haul railroad cars made by the company. A general railway strike ensued, interfering with mail delivery. When the ARU refused a court order to return to work, Cleveland sent in federal troops. "If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a postal card in Chicago, that card will be delivered," he said. Rioting broke out: strikers were killed and leaders jailed, but even as the strike was broken, the labor movement gained steam.

          Strong support for the feisty American labor movement emerged in worker dominated cities like Detroit, where thousands of men and women struck the plants and shops and marched the streets demanding a fair shake. Few cities are more identified with the advances of American workers than the Motor City.

    Grover Cleveland
    President Grover Cleveland, called out troops in the historic Pullman strike in 1894.

          With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1837, Detroit's population had grown to 10,000. Housing boomed and overworked carpenters became some of the first Detroiters to organize into unions. On April 3, 1837, the city's first strike broke out among the carpenters and journeymen seeking 10-hour work days and $2 pay.

          Joining the movement, organized printers in 1839 created the state's first union paper, The Rat Gazette. The term "Rat" was coined to describe the nonunion workers who spied for the bosses on organzing efforts. Union organizing centered on the skilled-trades workers of Detroit. Early organizing efforts drew sharp reaction from the employers, who formed their own organization to counter unionizing activity, the Detroit Employers Association. They immediately fired and blacklisted workers identified as union organizers, calling them "unwanted undesirables."

          The slogan of the Employers Association, "Prevention Is Better Than the Cure," struck fear in the heart of immigrant laborers seeking a better life in Detroit and helped make Detroit famous as an anti-union town.

          Detroit's first Labor Day celebration was on Aug. 16, 1884, according to Adelbert M. Dewey, one of the union pioneers. A program held in Recreation Park attracted 50,000 Knights of Labor and the Trade and Labor Assembly, making it a popular and real holiday. The large crowd of laborers marched proudly and defiantly down Woodward Avenue to the park. Labor leaders included Richard Trevellick, a ship carpenter from Detroit, who was called the "old warhorse" of the labor movement.

          His efforts earned him blacklisting by the shipyards. He became president of the National Labor Congress, the first national labor organization in the United States. Detroit workers later built a house for him in the western part of the city and presented it to him as compensation for his organizing efforts.

          By 1900 the trend toward using the holiday largely for recreation so tempted the tired workers that unions affiliated with the Detroit Trades Council adopted special resolutions. They set fines against members who failed to show up for scheduled union functions. But as an incentive to members, 50 pounds of tobacco awaited the union with the best showing.

    Coxey's Army
    Cleveland signed a bill June 28, 1894, designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day as several armies of hungry unemployed marched on Washington to seek relief. This photo shows Jacob. S Coxey's "Army of the Commonweal of Christ" marching on the capital.

          Detroit continued to grow in size as abundant capital, skilled labor, and cheap raw materials made the city the center of auto manufacturing. In 1899, the city's first automobile factory, the Olds Motor Vehicle Co., opened. By 1905, 29,000 vehicles had been produced in the city.

          With the expanding auto industry, Detroit's population exploded. Between 1910 and 1929 the number of the city's inhabitants tripled to 1.8 million as immigrant workers and Southern farmers sought work in the auto plants to provide a better life for their families.

          Not all shared equally in the fruits of labor, however. While industrial capitalists, lumber barons and real estate developers prospered, Detroit's workers continued to toil long hours at low wages. When the "Roaring Twenties" ended in the stockmarket crash of 1929, Detroit took a hard hit. The 10-year Depression followed. Since companies could no longer sell their products to struggling, often hungry families, they shut down production. A vicious circle of worker layoffs and plant closings brought more poverty.

          Laid-off Briggs workers cried, "Buy American? With what?" The Detroit News reported that people were being found in the city's streets, victims of poisoning from spoiled food scavenged from garbage cans. Unemployment in Michigan reached 43 percent in 1932. In Detroit the grim statistics listed one-third of the population as unemployed and penniless. Evictions littered the curbs with meager possessions. The ousted had no safety nets, no unemployment insurance. People relied on family, charities and public breadlines. Hobos marked an X on the fences of compassionate, generous homeowners who would give a free meal.

    1916 parade
    A Sept 5, 1916 Labor Day parade of Detroit workers marches down Woodward.

          On March 6, 1930, 35,000 jobless workers marched down Woodward in national protest against unemployment and hunger. In the early 1930s thousands joined together and walked to the Ford Motor Co.'s employment office in Dearborn. Henry Ford, whose plants had laid off more than one-third of his employees had declared that anyone "who wanted a job could find one." The marchers intended to take old Henry up on his statement.

          Violence erupted between the unemployed and police who joined Ford security forces. Shots were fired into the crowd, killing four protesters.

          During the following years, a wave of auto strikes spread to other occupations. The cigar and hotel workers and retail clerks struck for job security, better wages, safety and dignity.

          Few strikes resulted in major victories for the workers, but the growing militancy of Detroit auto workers taught many employers that cutting wages would only provoke costly strikes.

          The breakthrough in union strategy, the 1937 wave of sitdown strikes, began to turn the tide. Employers had been able to defeat the conventional walkout strike with replacement workers. Picket lines suffered the hazards of weather, police and boredom. The sitdown tactic allowed strikers to shut down production and remain protected from the weather. The arrangement also allowed the workers to develop a solidarity difficult to foster with a conventional walkout. The sitdown wave grew rapidly after the historic victory of General Motors workers in Flint. Their 44-day occupation of the Fisher Body plant forced General Motors to sign a contract with the union on Feb. 11, 1937.

    Fisher Body sitdown strike
    The historic sit-down strike at Fisher Body in Flint in 1937 began a wave of sitdown strikes that helped turn the tide for labor.

          Nationwide that year there were 177 sitdown strikes that lasted one day or longer, involving more than 130,000 workers. Locally, more than 100 sitdowns erupted in the factories, stores, and hotels in the winter and early spring months of 1937.

          Most of the federal laws protecting workers were passed during the 1930s. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which strengthened unions' rights to organize and negotiate with employers, was key legislation. Unions gained power during the 1940s as America fought World War II. Walter Reuther's legacy strengthened the rights of the working man. When wages were frozen during the war, Reuther began negotiating for benefits such as paid vacation and sick leave.

          Labor Day rallies in Detroit became the launching pad for Democratic presidential candidates to announce their campaigns. Candidates Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson came to Detroit to jumpstart their races and woo union support. But big labor's leaders would later lose much of their clout with the rank and file. Many moved to the suburbs and abandoned the Detroit parade. Attendance dwindled to barely 6,000 in 1966. Workers spent the three-day holiday enjoying backyard barbecues, boats and summer cottages: the fruits of their victories.

          Neither shamed by fines nor encouraged by prizes, workers refused to turn out for parades in the 1970s, and the parades were cancelled until 1981 when a meager 3,000 aging veterans of pioneer sit down strikes and picket line battles reassembled to give the traditonal show of solidarity one more try.

    Harry S. Truman
    President Harry S. Truman addressed a Labor Day rally in Detroit in 1948.

          In the next year, America's economy became unglued: large numbers of Michigan automotive workers were laid off in the recession. Police said the 1982 parade drew 170,000 marchers and onlookers, reflecting support for laid off workers and striking air traffic controllers who had been fired by President Ronald Reagan the previous year. In 1987 the Labor Day parade drew 100,000. But the momentum petered out. The struggles of the past faded as workers enjoyed the benefits of collective bargaining.

          Today, most Detroiters think of the holiday as a last summer fling. Many Americans have forgotten the holiday's roots in unionism. Relaxing at the beach or barbeque, it's easy to forget our grandparents who marched in the streets in huge parades celebrating the working man's efforts with a show of solidarity. Without union intervention, overtime pay, vacations and sick leave policies might not exist, nor workplace safety rules protect us.

          The long legacy of labor history surrounds us not only in our city's auto industry, but in our architecture and art work, and most important in the job benefits and quality of life we all enjoy from the labor victories.

    Fisher Body sitdown strike
    Waitresses at Woolworth's staged an eight-day sitdown strike in 1937, singing, dancing, exercising, doing each others hair and nails until finally management recognized their union and gave them a five-cent per hour pay hike.



    A song: "Union Maid"
    There once was a union maid;
    She never was afraid
    Of goons and ginks and company finks
    And the deputy sheriffs that made the raid.
    She went to the union hall
    When a meeting it was called,
    And when the company boys came 'round
    She always stood her ground.


    A song: "Talking Union":
    Suppose they're working you so hard it's just outrageous,
    And they're paying you all starvation wages.
    You go to the boss, and the boss will yell
    "Before I raise your pay I'll see you all in Hell."
    He's puffing a big seegar, feeling mighty slick
    'Cause he thinks he's got your union licked.
    Well, he looks out the window, and what does he see
    But a thousand pickets, and they all agree
    He's a bastard ... unfair ... slave-driver ...
    Bet he beats his wife.

    Now, boys, you've come to the hardest time.
    The boss will try to bust your picket line.
    He'll call out the po-lice and the National Guard;
    They'll tell you it's a crime to have a union card!
    They'll raid your meetings, they'll hit you on the head --
    They's call every one of you a Goddamn Red---
    Unpatriotic ... agitators ...
    Send 'em back where they came from.

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