For generations, Labor Day, harbinger of the school year and the end of summer, was embedded in the Northwest’s political and social fabric. Now, it’s back-to-school sales, discount mattresses, and soaking in the bullheaded rays of filtered sun. American workers? Leave that to the finger-pointing political class.
Conceived in the 1880s, Labor Day predates Washington statehood (Oregon was the first to make it a holiday) and aims to burnish the achievements of American workers. Thanks to organizing and trade unionism, Americans enjoy such givens as the weekend, child labor laws, an eight-hour work day, health care, and workplace safety. With unions a scapegoat for all that ails business (a talking point for those hankering to emulate anti-union redoubts like South Carolina and Mississippi) it’s worth revisiting labor’s legacy.
On Lombard Street in Everett, the red-brick Snohomish County Labor Temple is a workers’ citadel, a reminder of a labor movement that scratched, punched, and picketed for living-wage jobs (and its ironic fallout, those with living-wage jobs who now castigate unionism.) On the south face, the painted banner looks old school. Protect Your Interest, Buy Union Label. Use Union Services, “The Job You Save May be Your Own.”
The building’s preserved-in-amber exterior belies the movement’s 21st century mission, adapting to an evolving service sector and a declining manufacturing base. Instead of pulp-and-paper workers, there are nurses and homecare workers and retail salespersons. Labor’s political muscle has weakened, just as the middle class is feeling the Great Recession squeeze. (Nationwide union membership registers at a modest 14.7 million.)
True, to over-romanticize the Northwest’s union movement is to reinvent history. In 1886 the bigoted Knights of Labor corralled and booted all of Seattle’s Chinese-born workers. The anti-immigrant and sexist current continued for decades and corruption (the Teamster’s Dave Beck, a Northwesterner, tarnished the reputation of union leadership) alienated members. And what became of pro-union Republicans? The see-no-evil partnership of the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO often hamstring both institutions and aggravates an already polarized electorate.
Partisan bickering aside, Snohomish County is still the Labor movement’s native home. For historians, Everett has a quasi-spiritual connotation, the place where labor solidarity and the long arm of a vicious sheriff crossed paths. The 1916 Everett Massacre, what local historian Margaret Riddle termed “the bloodiest labor confrontation in Northwest history,” is still the great unspoken. Five Wobblies (members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World) were killed along with two deputies. The confrontation was fueled by a free-speech fight, the plight of local shingle weavers, and a sheriff-ordered beating of activists at Everett’s Beverly Park.
In Snohomish County we can memorialize Labor Day by teaching this history to the next generation, and by creating a monument that acknowledges the legacy of the Everett Massacre, that working people shed blood to ensure that one day others live free and equal in dignity and rights.
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