‘Tis the season for political candidates to invoke the past while outlining their vision for the future. Republicans will bow at the alter of Ronald Reagan. Democrats will lionize FDR and JFK.But as the rhetoric grows deep enough to have voters reaching for their hip-waders, it’s unlikely that either party will attach itself to the legacy of Martin Van Buren.
Yet as we take time today to recognize Labor Day, acknowledging the contributions of the American worker, perhaps today’s leaders would be wise to cling to the eighth president of the United States.
For it was Van Buren who, in 1838, facilitated the settlement of a strike by shipyard workers — the first government-mediated labor settlement in the United States. And it was Van Buren who, in 1840, signed an executive order providing a 10-hour workday for employees on federal public works projects.
So maybe Van Buren should be remembered as more than a wild-haired, one-term president — assuming he is remembered at all. Perhaps he should be recalled as an important conduit in the evolution of labor relations in this country.
Not that Van Buren had anything to do with Labor Day itself. That idea didn’t come along until the 1880s, and in 1887 Oregon became the first state to make it a recognized holiday. In an era when strikes and protests over deplorable working conditions — protests often met with violence — were becoming common, the labor movement in the United States was growing.
By 1894, Labor Day was officially celebrated in 30 states.
That year, a nationwide strike by Pullman car workers paralyzed railroad traffic throughout the country. When the strike escalated into violence, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was fast-tracked with the hope of appeasing organized workers. It was signed by President Grover Cleveland.
Thus, Labor Day was born, celebrating the contributions of the workers.
It remains, indeed, a most worthy celebration. While unemployment levels have remained high by U.S. standards in recent years as the nation struggles to recover from The Great Recession, more than 150 million Americans are in the workforce. They have contributed to an economy that in 2010 had a gross domestic product of more than $14 trillion — about 23 percent of the world’s economy and more than twice as much as any other nation.
Yes, contrary to modern-day rhetoric, the United States still generates commerce.
Not that the establishment of Labor Day some 118 years ago created an immediate utopia for American workers. There were additional milestones, such as Henry Ford’s notion of paying wages that would allow workers to actually purchase the products they were making. And such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York that killed 146 workers and led to vast changes in workplace safety regulations.
There have been limits on hours and limits on child labor and regulations regarding overtime pay. Protection for workers has been legislated into the culture, in some ways obscuring the need for labor unions.
That is crucial to the modern observance of Labor Day. What began as an ode to the labor movement, to organized workers, remains relevant today under different circumstances.
The needs of the workers have been altered since the days of Martin Van Buren. Their importance has not.