When Labor Day celebrated working people’s hard-won gains

EVERETT — To get more context behind the meaning of Labor Day is to go back 100 years.

It is to peruse Everett Herald, Everett Tribune and Everett-based Labor Journal clippings from the month leading up to the holiday in 1917, a time when mill workers were fighting for an eight-hour work day and a federal child labor law was enacted.

In many ways, they were frightening times. Ten months earlier, a shootout on the Everett waterfront officially left seven people dead, including two lawmen and five members of the Industrial Workers of the World union. Six other IWW members, known as Wobblies, disappeared that Sunday, never making it back to Seattle to pick up their union cards. The confrontation, known today as the Everett Massacre, has been described as the bloodiest battle in Pacific Northwest labor history.

The tension across the region intensified afterward. Labor unrest was routinely front-page news at a time when lumber and mill workers were striking for the shorter work day. There was heightened rhetoric that August and September. IWW leaders called for a general strike and demanded the release of workers jailed for various allegations of civil disobedience. Federal agents raided IWW halls across the country, including one on Hewitt Avenue in Everett.

As Labor Day approached, Washington Gov. Ernest Lister urged all citizens to consider the “complex labor problem now confronting the state, with a view to an amicable and permanent settlement of that problem, guaranteeing justice to the laborer, to the employer and to the public.”

Yet it was also a time when the achievements of the American worker were truly celebrated. The holiday, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894.

In Seattle, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 union workers participated in a Labor Day parade and picnicked at Woodland Park in 1917. Another 10,000 took part in a parade in Tacoma.

And, according to one newspaper account, Everett indulged in celebrations of its own, including a doozy at Silver Lake.

“There was a large and good-natured crowd at the lake carried there by interurban cars and automobiles,” read one newspaper account. “The weather was propitious and everybody enjoyed himself and herself to the full.”

There were potato sack races, swimming, and a woman identified as Mrs. Clifford of Seattle was awarded a sack of flour for having the largest family on the grounds. She brought her six children.

Picnickers, the story said, danced into the night — “the votaries of Terpsichore tripped the light, fantastic toe until the last opportunity to catch a car for home.”

On that same day, 500 Rucker Brothers’ mill employees and their wives were guests for an outing to Whatcom County for what was billed as a day of skiing and tobogganing on Mount Baker. A band from Granite Falls was brought along to provide music.

There is no large-scale picnic to celebrate Labor Day in Everett these days.

The Snohomish County Labor Council, a federation of 64 AFL/CIO unions that represents more than 42,000 county workers, has produced a one-minute audio recording featuring many voices describing the history behind the holiday.

Leonard Kelley is secretary-treasurer of the county Labor Council as well as Stanwood’s mayor. He hopes that on Labor Day people will remember “the struggles and suffering that workers long before us went through.”

“I wish there was a way to impress upon people how much work organized labor does, whether they are union or non-union,” he said.

That includes pushing for safer working conditions in hearings before state lawmakers, he said.

Sgt. Michael Boe, an officer and union shop steward from the Monroe Correctional Complex, often takes safety and security concerns to Olympia. His need to speak up only grew after he found slain corrections officer Jayme Biendl in the prison chapel in 2011. She’d been strangled by an inmate who is now on death row.

Support from his union has helped him deal with the trauma, he said.

For Boe, who also served 25 years in the Air Force, Labor Day is about remembering the groundwork laid over many decades.

“It is important to remind people because of unions we have a 40-hour week, improved child labor law and because of unions we have a weekend,” he said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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