Labor Day passed here without a fanfare. The three-day holiday filled our beach with folks and portable barbecue grills. Most celebrants view Labor Day as the last day of summer or the day before children return to school. Few know the history of this holiday. In fact, the thought that workers are entitled to a paid holiday and need to only work eight hours a day were at one time new concepts.
This labor holiday is the result of workers seeking safer working conditions, higher wages and a shorter work day. Many in management positions opposed the changes. Labor strikes followed and non-union workers were hired to break the strike. Violence erupted. Police and troops were dispatched to end the uprisings. Men were killed. The Pullman Car Strike of 1893 and the Hay Market Square incident of 1894 led to President Grover Cleveland declaring the first Monday of September a national holiday, Labor Day.
My father was a sheet metal mechanic. The union wanted to unionize the shop where he worked but would not take him as a member because he was a Mexican, although he was born in Texas.
His boss said, “If you don’t accept Herman, then I won’t accept the union.”
Dad became a union member and he attended union meetings, but he was called out of order when he tried to speak. Undaunted, he learned parliamentary procedure and became a voice for equality. I recall meetings at our house where strategies were planned. Then Dad bought a sheet metal shop. The first thing he did was sign a union contract.
I worked for Dad as a journeyman earning $3.50 an hour while attending UCLA Law School. The minimum wage then was $1.10 an hour. Being a practical man, Dad told me, “Learn a trade in case you don’t become a lawyer.”
I recently visited my 91-year-old cousin, Al Hernandez. His mind is as sharp as it was the first time I met him. He is a World War II veteran and a longtime labor leader. Al started working at Firestone Tires in 1943 and was drafted into the Air Force three months later. He returned as a staff sargent and was rehired at Firestone. He recognized the important role that unions had played in obtaining better working conditions and a fair wage. Al was subsequently hired by the United Rubber Workers to organize Spanish-speaking workers in the industry. In the meantime he took classes at UCLA. Eventually, Al was hired by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. In the course of his years as an organizer he was involved in local and national political campaigns. In 1974, for four days, he drove Cesar Chavez around Los Angeles, introducing him to unions to gather support for the farm workers’ grape boycott.
We spoke about the changing work force over time. Initially, organized labor was composed of men. Women stayed home and took care of the house and children. Today, parents’ roles aren’t defined by location or gender. The home and workplace may have the same address. Today, earning a living and raising children are shared by both parents. Technology now provides the opportunity for workers to work at home and communicate with the office via the Internet. The workforce is more diversified, not only by race and ethnicity but also by age. “Retired” workers now take jobs that were once considered exclusively for teenagers. Women have joined the union ranks and in some instances led unions.
Labor Day is a day that should be remembered by all of us in recognition of the sacrifices and contributions made by all those before us in order for us to have a paid holiday of rest. Maybe next year here in San Clemente we can have a Labor Day parade or a ceremony before we all head to the beach for a swim and a barbecue. That’s the view from the pier.
Herman Sillas can be found most early weekend mornings fishing on the San Clemente Pier. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book View From The Pier can now also be purchased at Casa Romantica.