Once upon a time, Labor Day had special meaning. It was a day to recognize and salute the labor movement which liberated so many from the tortures of overwork and underpayment. Today, we forget the monumental strides made by the labor movement.
When I was a boy, there was a man with silver hair and big, bushy eyebrows who fought for the coal miners. John L. Lewis rose to fame in the 1930s, fighting for fair labor laws and the United Mine Workers. Of course, then, the primary fuel in America was coal. We heated our homes, powered our steam railroad locomotives and made our electricity from mountains of coal.
In Norwich, Chappell Coal had a big derrick that stood like the Eiffel Tower and was a symbol of Norwich. It wasn’t as pretty or as tall as the Eiffel Tower, but it was much nosier. Huge coal barges would come up the coast and pass up the Thames River. Those barges would be unloaded night and day until they were empty, and the racket the steampowered derrick made could be heard all over town. On hot summer nights, when the windows would be open (for there was no air conditioning), folks in Greeneville could hear the chug-chug of the coal derrick.
The labor movement had other great leaders who literally engaged in combat. In the streets of Detroit, auto workers fought armed troops with baseball bats. Strike breakers at U.S. Steel used molten steel as a weapon.
When I was young, all the school teachers were unmarried, and in many cities, if they got married, they were fired. They were expected to dedicate their entire lives to the school system. They were great teachers, but overworked and underpaid. Today, the teachers union is one of the strongest, wealthiest unions in the country. Labor unions have done so much to improve the plight of the worker, but we seem to forget how things were before organization labor made its muscle felt.
There was a time when, in the history of Eastern Connecticut, many children didn’t go to school because they worked in the mills. Farmers had big families, and their children worked in the fields. The labor movement certainly has its faults and excesses, but, on balance, American labor is better off today.
There have been so many labor strikes in Eastern Connecticut over the years: Electric Boat, the telephone workers, the textile mills and even city employees, hospitals and convalescent homes
The American labor movement was created by Samuel Gompers, a cigarmaker in New York, when he founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL). That was back in 1886, and it grew and finally merged with the CIO in 1955.
When I served as state senator for the 19th District. I was considered the most conservative Democrat ever to sit in the Senate. Yet, I had a perfect labor record, though I did occasionaly vote against a bad labor bill.
In 1968, when the labor unions tried to pass a bill that was over the edge, I was one of only seven legislators who supported it. A distinguished Republican senator rose after that bill and said, “Senator Stanley would vote for any labor bill. If it were proposed that all state employees receive $1,000 a week, never go to work, and their checks be delivered weekly by State Police, the Senator would vote for it.”
In response, I said, “That sounds to me like a good bill, senator, but the Connecticut State Police are state employees.” He threw up his arms, and I said, “No matter what labor asks for, you, senator, would vote against it. All I do in the Connecticut Senate is cancel out your vote, and the rest of the Senate makes the decision.
There are times in life when we are so blind to reality that we judge labor by their extreme legislation and overlook their good.
Tomorrow we celebrate Labor Day. Or do we, rather, celebrate the end of summer or another day off? Labor Day, like so many holidays, has lost its meaning. The labor movement throughout America, and here in Connecticut, has done so much for the working man. Like freedom, good labor laws had to be fought for.
Today, many of the industries that serve us are represented by organized labor: our mailmen, policemen, firemen, school teachers, state and federal employees and the building trades; plumbers, electricians and carpenters. Many of today’s labor unions have overdone it and might be considered anit-labor by their unreasonable demands.
Labor Day is the day to celebrate the independence of the worker. Today, in world competition, labor is under attack again, competing with lower wages. Once upon a time, slave wages were paid also in America, but not today, thanks to organized labor.