By LAURIE WIMMER
As the day approaches for celebrating our labor force and its hard-won gains, let us examine the arc of our movement.
For more than 20 years, metro union members, their families, and supporters gathered at the ailing but legendary Oaks Park site to engage in camaraderie, solidarity, and good, old-fashioned fun. The famed Labor Day picnic, hosted by the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, featured amusement-park rides, carnival booths, barbecue, information booths, and of course, a lineup of elected officials and candidates, from the governor on down, whose very presence indicated support for workers and the unofficial kickoff of the electoral season.
But let’s look back farther. In 1887, Oregon was the nation’s first to make Labor Day a state holiday, beating federal recognition by seven years. Initially, employers did not have to honor the holiday, and to celebrate, workers had to in effect go on a one-day strike. Organized labor rose up in the 1880s as an answer to the growing power of capitalists as the nation industrialized at break-neck speed. Its first-ever festival to build solidarity took place in 1882. Marching down the streets of New York that year, some 10,000 people paraded with flags, drum-and-fife corps, and banners proclaiming “Labor built this republic. Labor shall rule it”.
It wasn’t long before workers began agitating for the eight-hour work day, a shorter work week, and time off for holidays and vacations. They fought for pensions, health care, workplace safety, and a balance of power. Though the movement ebbed and flowed through the years, its revival in the 1930s and ‘40s led to the tradition of the Democratic presidential candidate kicking off his campaign at a Detroit Labor Day rally. This holiday evolved to become the unofficial end of summer, the unofficial beginning of the school year, and the unofficial start to campaign seasons across the country.
The resilience of the American workforce is evident in this arc ever since, with unions sustaining attacks from every quarter yet coming back strong. Today’s voters support labor at levels not seen in 50 years, despite court decisions, lockouts, safety violations, and rollbacks to such fundamentals as child labor laws.
The COVID-19 pandemic also put speed bumps in the evolving tradition here, forcing for our Labor Day gathering into a three-year hiatus. Tthat extended into four when Oaks Park literally dismantled our celebration. The event stage was torn down, trees were cut, the picnic area shrunk by 36 percent, catering was abolished, and costs were boosted to astronomical rates.
But now, the Labor Day Picnic is back, and this time, at a public, not private, property: the Clackamas County Fairgrounds in Canby. Revelers will find great food, activities for kids, live music, and our traditional political kickoff event.
Why should you join us? Research suggests that spending time outside reduces anxiety, improves mood, strengthens your immune system, sharpens the mind, and makes you happier. Your dose of good health is all but guaranteed if you take your medicine with a shot of solidarity thrown in for good measure. So follow the wise words of one former president (Obama), who encouraged us all to “observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities that honor the contributions and resilience of working Americans.”
Our movement’s arc lands in Canby this year.
Laurie Wimmer is Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council and longtime union and tax policy advocate.