For over a century Americans have been celebrating Labor Day since it became a federal holiday in 1894. Though there’s some debate about who came up with the idea, the first September commemoration was in New York on a Tuesday in 1882, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, because the Central Labor Union wanted to celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday.” A couple of years later the first Monday in the month became officially designated as Labor Day—whereas May 1st will always be known as International Workers Day, when all the red flags unfurl.
Tellingly, New York was the first state to introduce a Labor Day bill, but Oregon was the first state to pass it in 1887. Today New York is still a leader in union membership, having the highest percentage in the country. On Long Island, about 25 percent of the workforce, in both private and public sectors, are unionized, according to Hofstra labor economists G. DeFreitas and B. Sengupta—nationwide the figure is roughly 11 percent although some reports say it’s as low as 7 percent. Either way, it’s a far cry from what it was in the 1960s at the height of labor power when a quarter of the American workforce was unionized.
One of Long Island’s still most powerful union men refuses to bend.
“Labor can never match Big Business when it comes to money,” says John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor and head of Local 338, the 19,000 strong retail workers union. “All we can do is talk about the issues and try to overcome the corporate mentality and the anti-worker attitude that the big corporations spend their money on.”
He’s proud of the accomplishments that labor has brought to America.
“It is the labor movement that is leading the charge to build up the middle class and give strength to our communities,” he says. “I like to tell people we’re the folks who brought you the weekend.”
Membership in Durso’s local has increased by almost 8,000 workers since he was first elected local leader in 1999, but overall organized labor’s impact on the country has grown weaker. On Sept. 3, labor will flex its muscle once again in Manhattan for the annual Labor Day parade—“the only exercise I get all year,” Durso says with a grin sitting behind a big desk in his spacious, dark-wood paneled Mineola office, which he says was originally a Social Security building. There was a Roosevelt mounted on the wall behind him—but it was a poster of Teddy, not Franklin. What would TR be thinking today?
“Teddy Roosevelt was ahead of his time,” says Durso, wistfully.
According to labor statistics today union membership nationwide consists of more public employees than private workers, and though the recession has slowed, an increasing number of pink slips are hitting government workers than company employees.
California is threatening to cut 15,000 state jobs to close a budget gap. Trenton, N.J., has already laid off a third of its police force and hundreds of school district employees and public workers. Cleveland canned 500 teachers this spring, despite getting more than $25 million in union concessions. Here, while all the attention has been on the county level, the Town of Oyster Bay is preparing to lay off 150 public workers by Oct. 1 after failing to get concessions to close a $13 million budget gap—and other towns may be planning to do the same.
It’s a trend that Durso deplores.
“You cannot cut your way to prosperity,” he says. “You can slash everything but then you’ll have a ghost town.”
Come Labor Day the streets of Manhattan will be filled with union supporters.
“It’s a celebration of the people who came before us and a realization that we stand on their shoulders,” Durso says. “I am really proud of the men and women I work with in the labor movement. I’m proud of their commitment to bettering the lives of others. I see it every single day.”
But in these troubled times, the message may be less about banding together and more about hanging on.
As she was leaving her probation assistant’s job last winter, Hilliard says the department’s director, John Fowle, tried to reassure her.
“He said, ‘Michele, I just want to let you know that you did nothing wrong,’” she recalls. “So, they were really sweet how they talked to us, very considerate and kind.”
She’s now majoring in criminal justice at Molloy College and writing an inspirational book based on Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.” And hoping she can get back into the probation department. She’s third on the list of call-backs.
“I’m praying for a miracle. I really am. I miss working,” Hilliard says. “I miss getting up and that feeling of being needed.”