Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Working class heroes: five names to remember on Labor Day

September 1, 2014 by Mark Kehres


Labor Day is an occasion for end-of-summer barbecues, one last splash in the pool, and the beginning of football season.  But it’s also an occasion to recall some of the champions of American labor.  Here are five names to remember.

 Samuel Gompers

New York Labor Day parade, 1882 (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

Samuel Gompers (1850 – 1924) was the founder of the American Federation of Labor, one of the largest American labor unions ever formed.  Gompers’ career as a worker began when, at ten years of age, he had to drop out of elementary school and apprentice himself to a cigar maker to help his family survive.  As he worked, he became familiar with working-class politics, as well as with the nature of labor organization.  He oversaw the creation of the American Federation of Labor, which brought together various unions into one large organization to protect workers’ rights.

 Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins (1880 – 1965) was Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first woman to serve as a Cabinet member.  After witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, she became an ardent supporter of workers’ rights.  She became the New York state industrial commissioner in 1929 under newly-elected Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt; working across party lines, Perkins championed minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws while reducing the workweek for women to 48 hours and expanding factory investigations.  In 1933, Roosevelt, by then President of the United States, appointed Perkins as the United States Secretary of Labor.  In this position, she played a key part in the passage of the Social Security Act, which established unemployment benefits, pension plans, and welfare for the poorest Americans.

A. Phillip Randolph

Asa Phillip Randolph (1889 – 1979) was an African American labor leader who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was the first black union to receive a charter in the AF of L.  As a boy, he watched his parents preparing themselves for self-defense in case a nearby lynch mob decided to come for them next.  Although Randolph was influenced by the integrationist ideas of W.E.B. DuBois, he turned instead to the trade unionist movement as a means of overcoming segregation and discrimination.  In 1917 Randolph and another activist, Chandler Owen, founded a magazine titled Messenger, which was dedicated to fighting against lynching and urged African Americans to join unions.  The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was founded in 1925, with Randolph playing a key role; Pullman car porters on railroad trains were largely black, and the BSCP provided them with a way to make sure that the company was not taking advantage of them.

Walter Reuther

Walter Reuther (1907 – 1970) played a leading role in making the United Automobile Workers (UAW) a powerful force in politics and the automotive industry during the middle years of the twentieth century.  Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, Reuther was the son of a German immigrant brewer.  Early in his life, Reuther worked in a Ford plant in Detroit, and later moved to the Soviet Union to work in an automotive factory there.  The time Reuther spent in the Soviet Union left him impressed with workers’ organization in factories, but dissatisfied with political and social repression in everyday Soviet life.  This experience would inform his lifelong opposition to communism while still supporting working-class causes and pushing for union rights in the numerous automotive plants in Detroit.

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993) worked to bring civil rights and workers’ rights to migrant farm workers.  Born to a migrant Mexican family near Yuma, Arizona, Cesar Chavez and his family were forced in 1938 to abandon their family farm and become migrant workers in California.  Chavez never made it past eighth grade in schooling.  In 1952, Chavez joined the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group; ten years later, he left the CSO to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with his fellow activist Dolores Huerta.  The NFWA, later the United Farm Workers (UFW), led workers in organized strikes for pickers of products like grapes, lettuce, and other fruits and vegetables.  Chavez’s slogan of “Si, se puede” (“Yes, it can be done”) has become a rallying cry for activists across the United States, and was closely echoed in Barack Obama’s 2008 slogan “Yes We Can.”

Mark Kehres is the Museum Programs and Training Manager at the National Constitution Center.  He is the writer of Constitution Hall Pass.

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