Support the workers

By Dylan Cookson | Aug 29, 2019

Labor Day was first celebrated in Rockland in the 1890s. The labor movement had been spreading across the country for decades, but the Labor Day holiday itself began with a series of municipal ordinances in 1885. The U.S. Department of Labor's history page will tell you that the holiday was first recognized on a municipal level, and then on a state level here and there before being adopted nationwide in 1894. When it was finally celebrated in Midcoast Maine, more than 1,100 workers marched down Rockland's Main Street in solidarity, according to labor historian Charles Scontras. But how many of us know this history?

Growing up, I never questioned the meaning of Labor Day. It seemed just like Memorial and Veterans Day, complete with barbecues and a suite of sales to indulge our consumerist culture. Just another three-day weekend. There was one major difference; my family never visited the graves of veterans who had passed, and no one said “support the troops.”

But Labor Day is not about “the troops.” It is about the workers. Shouldn't it be that Labor Day is accompanied by the analogous phrase “support the workers?”

I think so, but I never hear “support the workers” around Labor day. In fact, on more than one occasion I have seen Facebook friends share memes around Labor Day, shaming people for thinking that it is “about their three-day weekend,” on a background image of coffins covered with American flags preparing for military funerals. Even on a day that is about the workers, some of my friends and family are still eager to make the occasion about soldiers.

And I think I know why.

All the ceremony and patriotism that accompanies “support the troops” makes it a relatively safe phrase. You will not stir up controversy for asking others to “support the troops.” Supporting the troops does not necessarily mean supporting what they are ordered to do. Supporting the troops is not supporting drone strikes, but it doesn't stop them, either. Supporting the troops is not supporting questionable wars, but it doesn't make peace.

“Support the troops” is safe because it doesn't challenge or change the system. By contrast, when workers support each other, the system changes. And the history of Midcoast Maine is the perfect place to illustrate this.

In the late 19th century, Knox County was home to “The Granite Ring,” a quartet of companies that held a near-monopoly on the region's industry. These workers lived during a time when people were often maimed or killed on the job, or earned chronic health problems alongside their livelihoods. Livelihoods that were dispensed on terms set by the companies for which they worked. Workers sometimes went years seeing no real payment, paychecks being eaten up by the wildly inflated prices of the company stores from which they got their food and daily needs.

It was these conditions that inspired President Grover Cleveland to caution that corporations were rapidly becoming “the people's masters.” Wages were low, children never knew a life other than work, workers were coerced to vote for politicians their employers favored, and workers who stood up for themselves were often put down violently by private militias, police and even the National Guard.

But still, the workers persisted. The first International Granite Cutter's Union was founded on our own Vinalhaven Island, and they fought for each other. When Joseph Bodwell, one of the Granite Ring owners, attempted to fire 30 union leaders, 200 of his workers walked off the job.

Granite Cutter's Union members like Thompson Murch were elected to public office. Thomas Lyons of Vinalhaven became Maine's commissioner of labor. Socialist and pro-labor organizations multiplied across Midcoast Maine and the country. The working class, fighting in solidarity in the halls of Congress and on the shop floor, won significant reforms and crafted the thriving America that so many of us were raised to believe in. This pride and prosperity was shaped from the economic conditions created by the victories of the working class.

When democracy, even of a limited variety, came to the workplace in the form of unions and regulations, everyone benefited. Yet, in order to get there, we had to fight for it. This battle was not won by the soldier's bayonet, it was won by the worn hands and hoarse voices of granite cutters, machinists and quarry men.

We are living in an age where corporations are rapidly becoming our masters once again. Freedom is not free. Support the workers in solidarity. Win a better world.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Kenneth W Hall | Aug 30, 2019 17:44

This borderline sounds like Trump support as he is pressuring companies to return to the USA

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