This Labor Day, Remember Who Invented The Weekend

Opinionated History Lesson 

Albert Lannon Venetri

Low wages.  No minimums.  No health and welfare plans.  No pensions.  Discipline and discharge at a supervisor’s whim without recourse.  Working hours as many or as few as the boss wanted that day.   Injuries.  Illness.  Job first, then family.  Sexual harassment.  Polluted air, rivers on fire.  Fired for even thinking the word “union.”

That’s the way it was 100 years ago when “Robber Baron Capitalism” controlled politics, the economy, and the press, and accepted no responsibility for communities, families, or the environment.  People were last on the list when it came to the Bottom Line.  Bonuses for the big boys, unemployment lines for downsized/outsourced/riffed/redundant/outspoken workers.

For all too many workers in today’s globalized economy it seems like a return to the Bad Old Days.  Only we call it “Crony Capitalism” now, that mutually enriching blending of government and free enterprise that workers continue to pay for.  Enterprise is hardly free when local, state and federal government subsidies – taxpayer dollars –guarantee profits, or encourage exporting jobs across borders, or give a free ride to a company moving in while ignoring the devastation to the communities they leave behind.

A century ago workers were kept apart by race, nationalities, and gender, with older immigrant groups moving up (as long as they were white) and newer immigrants held down. A woman’s place was in the kitchen.  In some places the Irish, for instance, went from being “n—–r” turned inside out to cops breaking strikes against the same conditions they themselves had fought.  No matter how bad off you were, there was always some newcomer or nonwhite to blame instead of the system that created the disparities in the first place.  Sound familiar?

A stirring example of how workers could overcome the prejudice and work together is told in the 1987 John Sayles movie, Matewan, based on a true story.  White Appalachian coal mine workers on strike, African Americans and Italian immigrants brought in as scabs, and how the groups found unity against the goons and absentee mineowners.

There was a similar example in Bisbee where, in 1903, Mexican and Italian miners jointly protested wage cuts only to see their leaders deported.  Fourteen years later Bisbee broke a strike by recruiting over two thousand Phelps-Dodge goons to “deport” 1200 striking workers of 35 nationalities across the border into the New Mexico desert.

Labor Day, and the other workers’ holiday, May Day, grew out of the 1880s struggle for an eight-hour day.  On September 5, 1882, New York unions, weak as they were, organized the first Labor Day Parade which quickly took hold as an annual event and spread across the country.

On May 1, 1886, one-third of a million workers walked off their jobs in a coordinated action for the eight-hour day.  A confrontation at a Chicago rally left a policeman and a striker dead.  Eight radicals were arrested despite a complete lack of evidence; four were hung, one committed suicide in prison, and the remaining three were later pardoned.

Anti-radical hysteria and labor’s own divisions between craft unions, which tried to control wages by controlling the number of craftsmen available, and industrial unions which sought to unite all workers in a company or industry, made it easy to defeat the eight-hour movement, break many unions, and put tens of thousands of workers back on the streets, with all too many shot dead on picket lines by police or company thugs.

It wasn’t until the Great Depression that things really changed.  President Herbert Hoover tried to convince the capitalist class to take actions to mitigate the economic freefall.  They refused, and Hoover complained, “The only problem with capitalism are the damned capitalists.  They’re too damned greedy!”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in Hoover’s place and sought to implement a “New Deal.”  Facing the same resistance from the corporations and their lackeys in government, FDR turned to the people most affected, the workers and their struggling organizations.  For the first time labor unions now had rights, at least on paper, with organizing drives everywhere by both the craft-oriented American Federation of Labor and the newly-chartered  Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Moving quickly, CIO president John L. Lewis hired many radical organizers with experience leading to sit-down strikes, boycotts, mass rallies, and other new actions to pressure the bosses.  After World War 2 about 35 percent of the workforce were union members, with non-union employers forced to meet the wage and benefit competition in order to hire and retain competent employees, and in some cases required by law to meet wage, hour and other standards.

With millions of men drawn into World War 2 women reclaimed their place in factories and “Rosie the Riveter” made the Hit Parade.  Racial barriers fell in many places, although not in the South where racial divisions were still used to keep workers apart and frustrate union organizing.  When the war ended, however, a weary nation elected a conservative Congress which immediately sought to roll back labor’s gains.  The year 1946 saw more strikes than any previous year in American history, but the growing Red Scare, along with racial and gender divisions in the scramble for fewer jobs, led to purges and rollbacks.

The Taft-Hartley Act allowed states to outlaw mandatory union membership, and soon about half the states, including Arizona, enacted right-to-work (for less) laws.  Union membership leveled out despite growth in the public sector, but the post-war years saw the emergence of an American middle class who could own homes, buy cars, and send their kids to college.  And with unions employer dictatorships were moderated; workers had enforceable rights and were no longer subject to arbitrary discipline.

As happens when any movement is successful and becomes an institution, the needs of the organization and those of its members can diverge, and some unions succumbed to bureaucracy, or to accommodating the employer in the often-false name of “saving jobs.”  A few militant unions survived the Cold War purges and carried on activist, rank and file-oriented activity as best they could.  Others became the cigar-chewing “suits” who believed they knew what was best for working men and women.  Some unions raided each other instead of organizing in new areas.

When Republican President Ronald Reagan destroyed the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization with the stroke of a pen in 1981, it sent a signal to employers that the rules had changed.  Union-busting became a growth industry as the 1980s saw a wave of plant closures with jobs outsourced across borders and oceans.  Public employee unions, a bright spot as private union membership shrank, came under special attack, an assault which continues today.

The continued weakening of what’s left of the labor movement has been bipartisan.  It was Democratic Arizona Governor Brue Babbitt who sent the National Guard to escort strikebreakers into Phelps-Dodge mines in 1983, effectively helping the company keep its promise to “kill the union” in Clifton-Morenci, Bisbee, Ajo, Douglas and El Paso.

Union strength is bottoming today close to what it was 100 years ago, but new worker movements keep breaking out as employees assert their worth and their dignity.  The minimum wage movement, fast food organizing, Wal-Mart — even college teaching assistants.  The simple truth is that as long as there are bosses, workers will create organizations to defend themselves against the arbitrary dictatorship of the workplace.

AFL founder Samuel Gompers is often quoted answering the question, What does labor want? with saying “More!”  The corporate press used that over and over to show that labor unions were narrow and self-interested.  What Gompers actually said was:

“What does labor want?  More.  More schoolhouses and less arsenals, more learning and less vice, more leisure and less greed, more justice and less revenge; in fact, more opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”

The grandson of an immigrant copper miner and son of a merchant seaman, Albert Vetere Lannon was a high school dropout and blue collar worker, a 21-year union representative in Northern California, and a Bay Area labor educator after earning his high school GED and several college degrees in his fifties.   He retired to Tucson in 2001 and lives in Picture Rocks with his artist and poet spouse.  He is struggling with cancer, and the local civic organization, Citizens for Picture Rocks, has declared that their next meeting, September 19, will be Albert Vetere Lannon Appreciation Day for his years of active service to the community. 


17 Comments on "This Labor Day, Remember Who Invented The Weekend"

  1. And let’s remember those who have created a permanent underclass of low wage earners to steal the jobs and benefits of the American worker, liberal Democrats exploiting the poor and uneducated from Mexico.

  2. “In this fascinating biography, Albert Lannon, son of Al Lannon, offers a scholarly look at his father’s life and development as an American Communist.”

  3. it might be all this BS that created the day, but it the “BOSS” and “COMPANY” that pays for it to be… and at time and a half if you do work on the Holiday. The “BOSS” is also the guy that risks all he has, takes on the debt, risk, labor issues, government regulations… on end of everything and of every type, with the IRS ready to take it all any time there is any stress or slowdown that the ‘Boss’ must find an answer to or everything they have is gone to the risk – and the employee walks away. Oh I got laid off because… the risk the ‘owner’ takes has to be worth the potential or it don’t work. The owners work 15, 18 some times days without stop, unto death to us part.. because they are married to the job, business, process, fight, plan, program.. with a passion to get it done! That doesn’t have the time to stop. And pays for all this stuff they say we are so ‘mean and greedy about’ – to which I say, if its’ so bad you open your own and try it for awhile and see what being the boss is all about, see what you come back thinking about all this crap. If you ain’t got no blood, sweat and tears in it, you have a job. It’s an odd partnership employer and employee.. you gotta love it or it won’t work. Families are the numbers the boss feeds, sends to college, pay for healthcare, helps out in emergencies, understands in bad times, emergent times, sick times, distraught times.. at the speed of life – and keeps the ship and shop going, making it. It’s a month to month think and thing full of ‘all in’ risk all the time. So enjoy the day – I’ll have the phone on, the car full of gas ready to go at the drop of a hat.

    • Albert Lannon | September 4, 2017 at 9:17 am |

      Actually, we can argue about who is paying for what. Small business should be the backbone of the economy, but the big corporations, seeking monopoly to maximize profits, are the political and economic drivers of the economy.

      As I recall my Econ 101, the employer has certain fixed costs — rent, utilities, licenses, raw materials, etc. The price of the product or service has to cover those plus wages plus profit. The only real variable possible is wages to employees, so the lower the wage, the more profit possible. Many small employers are fair, others squeeze, and often they face unfair competition from the Big Boys who can afford to take a loss to keep their market share. Profit is the difference between cost and sale price — lower wages means higher profits. Which means that there is a strong argument that it is actually the worker that is creating wealth. Just sayin’….

      BTW — In the early days of American capitalism workers got Sunday morning off without pay to go to church. Period.

      • Albert – your Econ 101 may have been valid in 1965 – the small vendor is now squeezed by the economic reality of today – I wish it were as simple as you describe it would be ‘that simpler life we used to live’ – forced “Health Insurance” Gov’t ruling what the price is (socialistic economic structure) in many industries, the confusion is ‘what is the real price’ – The internet price? Is that what the mean retail cost is of a product today? The Amazon economy has beat the mom and pop to the ground, inventory is an absent, as is service without a box. Mandatory minimum wage (we’re near double that and still have problems getting employee’s to work.. oh it’s Saturday.. or I don’t want call) people need service 24/7 that’s when we work. The “American laborer” isn’t interested, they just want the benefits. I do have a good crew but many are lacking basic skills from school or learned ethic I think a part of today’s expectant society. I hope they do go to church on Sunday.. looks like I’m the only one. Who makes the wealth. I say God, I’m just borrowing the resources.. can’t take it with me. That’s not a very popular opinion anymore. I Thank God for my blessings – I’m also glad I’m at the end of my career. My plan is to give my company away… how long will it survive with me gone. Be interesting to watch. With or without me, I think it’s really tough to continue with over 40% of vendors like myself going under since government rule dominated the market, an accelerating percentage in the past 3 years. Not good news for the ill and older folks who use our products and services.

      • Well, the communist has demonstrated he knows nothing about free markets or capitalism. Revenues and profits aren’t increased by cutting wages, at least not in the American economy. Growth and profits are increased by innovation, by motivating and developing new methods and opportunities.

        But when your background is a static, authoritarian driven society based on limited resources (Marxism) it’s the only perspective one might have.

        • Albert Lannon | September 5, 2017 at 11:46 am |

          Unmasking What, Again: It is a time-honored tool in the bag of tricks of provocateurs to name-call without facts, to point attention away from themselves as they throw the stone to instigate repression. But as a trained researcher, I’ve learned to look behind the name-calling.

          Clearly What, Again Is old, perhaps senile, or he wouldn’t confuse me with my father who has been dead nearly 50 years. But who is he, really? Or she? Free speech loses something when it is used anonymously, without being called to account. That might have been useful in the days when insults were called out to duels, but not in today’s free exchange of information and insults.

          It is a fact that many people using pseudonyms stay close to their real names, so let’s look at What (four letters) and Again (five letters). Who else interested in stirring the pot has a similar name? You got it – Vlad (4 letters) Putin (5 letters).

          A common translation of putin into English is baguette, which suggests that What Again is being paid for his nefarious services, although it is not clear if it’s in rubles or dollars or loaves of bread.

          I rest my case.

  4. BTW – I was labor for many many years – and now owner since 1991. Started with a $5000.00 unsecured credit card.. go for it – see what it’s about.

  5. Labor Day is just another paid day off for Union workers. Not anywhere near as bad as congress though. I worked every labor day except when I was not in school. That was the only way I got paid. I agree with What Again, the party that benefits the most from Unions is the party that subsidizes the low income wage earners that stream across our borders. Creating victims, that is what the dems do best.

  6. This is a good article. To bad that those to need read it will probably never see it. The youngsters in school will never get to realize it as is not taught in school now. Unless it tis posted on Facebook which is not kid’s favorite site anymore (too many old folks use it) many will never read ADI. History repeats itself if unknown.

  7. In reality, weekends were simply a part of ‘religious life’ back in the day when people actually had faith. It was taboo to work on the Sabbath and Sundays. To believe UNIONS were responsible for the creation of weekends is utter BS, a theory of revisionism for the seriously dumbed-down.

    • Dwayne Wolfswinkle | September 4, 2017 at 7:43 am |

      Standman aka sandman

      Open your eyes when you read. The article doesn’t say anything about inventing weekends. It says Unions were responsible for the idea to Recognize Labor and it resulted in a National Holiday 3 day weekend.

  8. I know that there were corrupt business men who exploited workers but there are now laws in place. The benefit of the unions now is only to the democrat party coffers. Especially the SEIU. You can’t fire a government worker for anything less than voting for a republican.

  9. in thinking about this ‘Holiday’ – Its the organized day where labor celebrates the idea of the ‘boss is a smuck’ and send him (her) the bill for a day off. Its an American thing.

  10. This Boss needs an occasional 3-day weekend not to go off to the White Mountains or see Grand Canyon but to rest from my 60+ hr/week job.

  11. Mary Ellen Doyle | September 5, 2017 at 4:44 pm |

    Hi Albert,
    Very nice article! It has been a long time! Coincidentally I spoke to Mary today. My email is I would love to talk to you!

  12. “You didn’t build that” so said Barack Insane Obama and of course Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren. The term “Capitalist” comes precisely from the concept they are the ones putting up the cash to start a business venture. It’s theirs to risk, not the employees who freely choose to work.

    Trade Unions, or “Industrial Armies” as Karl Marx called them, was the 8th economic plank of the Communist Manifesto. Albert’s father Al Lannon, was a Communist, and I strongly suspect that Albert is as well.

    He talks about 100 years ago… Why NOT talk about 200 years ago when most Americans were hard-working, skilled and their own boss. Some failed, others succeeded. Early Americans had little patience for dishonest business practices OR lazy workers. Unions protect lazy, incompetent workers and give zero credit to the employer. They believe that

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