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Labor Day: From focus on workers’ rights to end-of-summer fest

The Labor Day rally Daley PlazMonday Sept. 3 2012 moved City Hall.  |  Sun-Times file photo

The Labor Day rally at Daley Plaza on Monday, Sept. 3, 2012, moved to City Hall. | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: October 3, 2013 6:21AM



Small airplanes race through the air at nearly 200 miles per hour as large groups gather in nearby picnic groves for an afternoon of revelry. It’s not the Chicago Air and Water Show, its Labor Day in Chicago, circa 1930.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, a majority of Chicagoans gathered the first Monday of September to celebrate labor at large picnics, elaborate parades or sporting events — including baseball games, boxing matches and airplane races, said Russell Lewis, Chief Historian at the Chicago History Museum.

Early Labor Day celebrations in Chicago, a city integral in the holiday’s creation, were “elaborate” events, Lewis said. Social changes meant Labor Day has evolved into a an unofficial celebration of the end of summer, but local union officials say the fight for workers rights is still as important as it was a century ago.

States began passing legislation recognizing a Labor Day in 1887, but the federal government did not establish a national Labor Day until 1894 — just months after the Pullman Strike, in which about 4,000 Chicago factory workers for the Pullman Company walked off the job because of pay reductions.

“The Pullman Strike in 1894 was a big catalyst for the government to find a Labor Day celebration to recognize the labor class and get the focus away from violent confrontation,” Lewis said.

Early Labor Day celebrations in Chicago were large events organized by unions where members marched “in full regalia” in parades along Michigan Avenue or at Soldier Field, Lewis said. Other unions held large picnics or sponsored sporting events for its members.

“People in labor unions were a big, large community,” Lewis said. “Your labor union was your social life and your work life.”

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez noted, “a strong, healthy and vibrant community is the bedrock of the middle class.”

Beginning in the 1950s, the “decline of the importance of unions in American life and Chicago” and the “loss of community” led to a transformation of Labor Day celebrations from a recognition of labor to a backyard barbecue-type celebration of the end of summer, Lewis said.

However, not all of the traditional Labor Day celebrations are gone.

Major unions in Chicago still hold Labor Day events. The Illinois Labor History Society, Chicago Federation of Labor, Pullman State Historic Site and the National Parks Conservation Association will host a gathering at the Pullman Factory that led to the creation of the holiday nearly than 120 years ago. The gathering will feature music, tours, reenactments and presentations.

Other union members will connect with community members of various religions at more than 100 services through the Labor in the Pulpits program, Ramirez said.

“We want to draw a connection with the general respect for work and faith,” Ramirez said.

Additionally, some suburbs, including Harvey, Frankfort, Naperville and Schaumburg, still host annual Labor Day celebrations.

While Labor Day celebrations have evolved, local union leaders maintain the importance of labor unions to workers rights. Ramirez noted 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, created to eliminate wage disparity between sexes.

“It’s not done. Just because a law is passed doesn’t mean the work is done,” Ramirez said.

Email: mlansu@suntimes.com

Twitter: @mikelansu



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