Labor Day: New year for schools & NFL has a long union history

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 2: From coast to coast, you can smell the barbecue and, in some communities, you’ll still see fireworks after sunset! Americans celebrate Labor Day as one last blast of summer—before the start of a new school year, more intensified fall-and-winter schedules in many companies and, of course, the return of the NFL and college football!

But the holiday has a long and hard-won history in the U.S. labor movement.

Wikipedia has an in-depth overview with links to read more about the early roots of Labor Day in the late 1800s. The phrase “hard-won” is accurate because federal officials didn’t enact the holiday until after deaths in the Pullman railway strike of 1894. In response to nationwide concern about the use of violence against workers in the Pullman strike, Congress moved rapidly to enact a holiday honoring workers. However, political leaders wanted to avoid the movement toward an International Workers Day in early May to remember deaths in the Chicago Haymarket Square bombing in 1886. Some American unions also backed the later date for an American holiday—and “the first Monday of September” is now a fixture in American life every year.


This news may surprise you! Two years ago, in 2011, Pew researchers issued a startling report headlined “Unions Face Uncertain Future.” Pew polls found American attitudes toward organized labor at a low point. But, this summer? Pew reports a different story, headlined Favorable Views of Business, Labor Rebound. The new report says, in part:

“Favorable opinions of both business corporations and labor unions have rebounded from record lows reached in the summer of 2011. Overall, more Americans now hold a favorable (55%) than an unfavorable (39%) view of business corporations; two years ago, opinion was reversed (52% unfavorable, 38% favorable). Similarly, views of labor unions have returned to positive territory, with 51% holding a favorable view and 42% holding an unfavorable view – far better ratings than the 46% unfavorable/41% favorable balance of opinion registered in 2011.”


This year, stories about the influence of comic books are back in newspaper and TV news, mainly because of U.S. Rep. John Lewis’s creation of a graphic novel, ‘March,’ to teach a new generation about the civil rights movement.

Thanks to comic artist and historian Tom Christopher, we’ve also got a fascinating online history of comic books used in the American labor movement. In Tom’s historical overview (which includes some screen shots of these collectible classics), he demonstrates that companies, unions and even some bigoted groups distributed comic books in the campaign to sway American attitudes toward organized labor.

In our view at Read The Spirit, one of the best sections of Tom’s history concerns the old “Cliff Merritt” comics, which still show up in shops and websites that sell classic comic books. Cliff Merritt was drawn and presented as a good, solid American guy, whom Tom describes as looking a lot like the actor Robert Young (starring in TV’s Father Knows Best at the time). Some top names in comic history worked on these indie projects.

So, as a unique Labor Day treat for our readers, this year—enjoy Tom Christopher’s story of an unknown chapter in our American labor history. Tom reminds us of an era when the labor movement made common sense in households nationwide. One issue in the pro-labor comic series was called Cliff Merritt Sets the Record Straight. In that issue, Tom writes: Cliff “is about to retire from the railroad, and he’s given a dinner which he uses as an occasion to make a quick speech about progress in economics and safety through union activity. Cliff lives with his son and his family and he learns that his grand daughter has had a tiff with her boyfriend over the legitimacy of union activities. He calls the youngsters together and gives them a slideshow detailing union history and demonstrating the need for a union to ensure workers’ rights and safety. The young lovers make up and head off to the malt shop for a soda.”

From all of us at ReadTheSpirit: Have a safe and happy Labor Day!


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