September 2, 2021

Labor Day: A Day for Workers


Labor Day is once again upon us- the one day of the year that is set aside for America’s workers. The other 364 days a year working class Americans turn the wheels that make our economy grow, while the captains of industry congratulate themselves on their success. However, their success is built on the sweat and muscle of the workers.

America’s labor movement was in full swing in the late 1800s, as the industrial revolution was pushing workers harder and harder. Immigrants from all over the world were arriving on America’s shores every day seeking opportunity for a better life. However, many only found poverty, long hours, and short wages. They came from France, Ireland, China, England, Spain, and many other places on the map. These were our great, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, coming here to find a better way.

America’s workers faced hardships, as they worked in steel mills with no safety guidelines, thousands perished in mines from cave-ins and explosions, while others laid the rails across an endless prairie for short pay and harsh working conditions. Eventually these workers banded together and formed labor councils to demand better pay and working conditions.

In 1887, the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor organized the first Labor Day parade in the United States. Oregon became the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday. In 1894 Congress passed a law making Labor Day a national holiday to be celebrated on the first Monday in September.

In 1906, Henry Ford introduced the Model T, and the automotive industry was born in the United States. General Motors and Chrysler joined the market and auto sales soared, along with workers from all over the country moving to Detroit to be part of this new industry. The auto industry was growing and the need for workers made hiring all inclusive. African Americans were given the opportunity for jobs, as thousands from the southern states found their way to Detroit to be part of this developing industry. The Reuther brothers from Wheeling, West Virginia- Walter, Victor and Roy would find jobs in the area. The township of Taylor in southern Detroit was called Taylor-Tucky due to the number of southern people who had made the trip north seeking work. It was here the UAW was born.

In 1935, the UAW was chartered as part of the AFL-CIO. The UAW was the first group to concentrate on factory workers, with the auto industry being the perfect place to start. Sit down strikes had proved to be successful in organizing the automotive plants, with the first one being in the General Motor’s Fisher Body plant in Atlanta, Georgia on November 17, 1936. A month later the sit-down strike in Flint would gain national attention, but the first one was in Atlanta. A Fisher Body employee had been fired for wearing a UAW button, so workers staged a sit down in protest. Workers remained in the plant overnight, with a picket line forming the next day.

Eventually workers in Kansas City, Cleveland and Flint would join the protest. Finally, three months after workers in Atlanta sat down, General Motors recognized the UAW as the bargaining agent for their employees on February 11, 1937.

UAW contracts would go on to help build the middle class in the 20th century. Cost of living raises, employer provided health care and pension plans all first appeared in UAW contracts. UAW members would lead the way on the Arsenal of Democracy, building planes, vehicles, and weapons for the war effort during World War II. They would join the effort marching for Civil Rights in the 1960s, with UAW President Walter Reuther speaking at the March on Washington in front of 250,000 activists.

In 1970, UAW members struck General Motors for 67 days, finally winning a 13% wage increase for our members. In the 1980’s UAW opposed apartheid in South Africa, demanding equal treatment for all. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he insisted on celebrating with UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, Michigan.

The UAW has played an important role in organized labor in the United States. America’s workers have built this great nation, fed its people, built the roads, the railroads, the schools, the hospitals, and an economy that is the envy of the world. Our members today continue to defend the working class, help the needy and fight the good fight for those who need our help.

This Labor Day, I encourage you all to pause and remember the sacrifices our members have made to build this country and this movement. This day is about much more than an end of summer bash- it is a day to remember the contribution that America’s workers have made to turn the wheels to drive industry. While it is true, we have taken our lumps over the actions of a few, may we never forget the accomplishments of the many. The UAW resides in the local union halls, the homes, and the hearts of our members. These are the people we celebrate this Labor Day.

On behalf of the leadership and staff of Region 8, I want to wish you all a happy Labor Day. May we all use the day to remember those who came before us and renew our commitment to those who will follow us into the future.


In Solidarity,

Region 8 Director Mitchell Smith





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