'Peculiarly labor's day'


Samuel Gompers helped organize the American Federation of Labor in 1886 and, other than a single year off, served as its president from that year until his death in 1924.

A cigar maker by trade, Gompers first joined a union - Cigar Makers International Union - in New York in 1864. He rose through its ranks and then that of the national movement, becoming the leading spokesman of his time for organized labor.

Derided by critics as a socialist and a foreigner (he was born in London), Gompers viewed trade unions as a means for workers to obtain economic power, which, in turn, would lead to political power.

Below are excerpts of an address he delivered in Indianapolis on Labor Day 1903 in which he celebrates the movement's achievements, including the creation of the federal holiday.

Labor Day grew out of a parade sponsored by the New York City Central Labor Union in 1882, according to Peter J. Albert, co-editor of the Samuel Gompers Papers project at the University of Maryland, College Park. Various cities and states adopted the idea, and Congress gave federal workers the day off beginning in 1894, essentially making it a national holiday.

In its early years, Labor Day was celebrated by parades and then speeches, such as Gompers' address in Indianapolis. As was his practice, he spoke extemporaneously, but a stenographer recorded his words.

- Jon Morgan

"We are called upon today to bear in mind the fact that this, of all days in the year, is peculiarly labor's day, secured by the efforts of the workers themselves, granted to them by no one, conceded to labor by no one, but out of the accumulated years and centuries of struggle and travail and suffering, and burdens borne, emerging from the darkness ... of misery and despair into the open field of manhood and womanhood, the toilers of our country and our time, present to the world a movement that commands the admiration of all the lovers of liberty and humanity.

"Today we saw the masses of labor in the streets ... marching behind their bands of music but with no martial strains. ... The tread of the toilers ... was the tread of the peace-loving, the earnest-thinking, the hard-working yeomanry ... the foundation of our republic, the standard-bearers of right and justice now, and those who are united in solid phalanx to work out the salvation of the whole struggling human family.

"The past has laid this burden upon the shoulders of the toilers of our country and our time. What we observed [here] today was witnessed, to a greater or lesser degree, the country over, from one end to the other; the same street march of workers, of wealth producers, of honest, earnest men and women keeping time with you, and though we may not have heard the strains of their bands of music nor have seen the fluttering of their banners in the wind, yet we know that the toilers of America, organized in a practical, peaceable, rational movement for the uplifting of the masses marched with you today.

"And we know that as they marched they marked a milestone ... in the progress of industrial freedom, a milestone in the advance of human justice, leaving behind us all that is wrong, all that is unjust that we have been able to conquer, and also marking a determination that as year passes year, in the cycle of time, there shall stand out a humanity as broad as the universe, as deep in its love as the seas, and as high in its hopes and its aspirations as the heavens above us.

"The world is our field and justice and humanity our goal.

"Organized labor! What has it done?

"What other organization has saved the children from the factories and workshops? Where is the association of men and women that has raised a voice for the young and the innocent children until the trade union came into the arena of industry?

"The children, from the ages of 5, 6 and 7, were in the mills and shops and factories, and it was organized labor that sounded the tocsin and roused the conscience of the people of our country to the iniquity of child labor. ... If organized labor could be driven out of existence this very day, and had nothing more to its credit, it would have filled a mission filled by no other human agency and would have a splendid record.

"But it has other things recorded in its favor.

"Who but the trade unions secured the proper ventilation of the mines? Who secured the proper safety appliances used in the coupling of trains? Who secured the lien laws for the workmen so that their wages might be secure when they worked? Who secured early closing so that the merchant and the businessman and the employer might enjoy hours of recreation, which before the time of organized labor were given over to needless drudgery and supervision?

"Intelligent employers agree to pay a tribute of respect to the efforts of organized labor in reducing the hours of daily toil.

"Our Labor Day! Who gave us Labor Day? The wage workers, the organized labor movement gave this holiday to the world.

"Trade unions foster education and uproot ignorance; they shorten the hours of labor and lengthen life; they raise wages and lower usury; they increase independence and decrease dependence; they develop manhood and balk tyranny; establish fraternity and discourage selfishness; reduce prejudice and induce liberty; they enlarge society and eliminate classes; create rights and abolish wrongs; lighten toil and cheer the home; brighten the fireside and make the world better.

"This labor movement cannot be downed; it cannot be crushed out. It will live long after you and I are gone. We have no fortune to leave to our children. We can leave them this movement so that in their time they may find the contest and struggle for existence a little easier than we found it in our day.

"It is the only heritage we can leave to them. Out of our labor movement we want to establish this country not only as the granary of the world, but as the great workshop of the world, and out of our movement will grow a greater manhood, a more intelligent and beautiful womanhood and a brighter childhood.

"The time of which the philosophers have dreamed and the poets have sung, and for which men have contended for centuries, will have come. When that day comes none will have done more for the peace and goodwill that will reign upon earth than the trade unions."

Source: American Federation of Labor Records: The Samuel Gompers Era, Peter J. Albert and Harold L. Miller, editors, microfilm edition [Sanford, N.C., 1979].

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