People line up to get free barbecue at a Labor Day event in Lewiston. Credit: Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal

This newspaper recorded the events of Labor Day 1904 with unusual enthusiasm, describing a parade of more than 2,000 union members in Bangor as “filled with good-fellowship and triumph … a potent example typified in thousands of silent, stalwart men, of the strength and force and dignity which labor organization brings.”

In particular it admired the keynote address delivered by J.F. Sheehan of Massachusetts, who laid the groundwork for the development of unions.

“It is often said that the union men of America are discontented,” Sheehan said. “If this be so — and I deny it not — then it is a virtue and not a vice. The discontent that urges a man to rise above the lowly station where his lot is cast; that makes more money, better homes, nobler men and truer women; that has shortened the hours of labor and improved the scale of pay; that has given the United States the political liberty and social equality which it enjoys now; and which lastly, the trade unions of the land are going to ferment until it has equalized the scale between employers and employed until the American working man can stand up to all the world and say: ‘I am a man, with a man’s feelings and a man’s rights; I will be the faithful employ of any; but the unconsidered slave of none’ — this discontent, I say, must be hailed as a glory rather than as a sin!”

Ever since President Grover Cleveland signed an act making the first Monday in September a legal holiday to honor America’s workers, Labor Day has been a holiday of conflicting themes, an odd mixture of the somber and the frivolous. Even 19th century labor organizer Peter J. McGuire, credited with conceiving Labor Day, admitted the holiday designed to honor work was timed to “come at the most pleasant season of the year, nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and would fill a wide gap in the chronology of legal holidays.”

It is a gap filled with gusto. Americans and Mainers, whether watching stock car races or baseball or, better still, enjoying the last few days of free Maine state park access thanks to Gov. Paul LePage, seem always to enjoy themselves. Where once there were parades, barbecues rule the day.

Keeping in mind McGuire’s intent, this Labor Day also provides the opportunity to assess how far the labor force has progressed, or failed to progress, over the years. The trend is not encouraging.

Unions today — particularly those representing public sector workers — are fighting a nationwide contempt. Organized labor has been demonized as the reason, at least in part, for the economic woes that still plague the nation. Right-to-work legislation, which would prevent organized labor unions from collecting representation fees as a condition of employment, has been introduced in many states, including Maine. In June, the US Supreme Court ruled that government workers can’t be forced to contribute to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining. It was a reversal of more than four decades of law.

Overcoming nearly static wages will take a lot more than the festivities planned for Labor Day, but helping workers to the fruits of their labors never has been a picnic.

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