"Reclaiming Labor Day" speech by VWC President Ellen Schwartz

Yesterday, VWC President Ellen Schwartz gave this speech at the 2015 Burlington Labor Day celebration:

Photo of EllenTwelve years before President Grover Cleveland established the Labor Day holiday, Matthew Maguire -- a machinists’ union leader and socialist from Paterson NJ and one of the organizers of the Central Labor Union of NY -- proposed a “Mammoth Festival, Parade, and Pic-Nic.”

On Sept 5th, 1882, thousands of workers paraded up Fifth Avenue -- past mansions, hotels, restaurants, and shops serving the millionaires of New York. In the era of the 12-hour day and child labor, many gave up a day’s pay and risked firing in order to participate.

Labor Day became an official holiday eight years after the Haymarket Massacre and just months after the Pullman strike and boycott, a wildcat strike that became the largest strike in U.S. history. In June of 1894 President Cleveland dispatched federal troops to break the strike and boycott of Pullman, turning what had been a peaceful labor action into acts of resistance to state violence. Just three months later, this same president designated Labor Day as a federal holiday to conciliate organized labor and to cleverly ensure that May 1--with its associations with the Haymarket Martyrs--didn’t become the official workers’ holiday.

Today we can reclaim Labor Day as a celebration of workers’ struggles and victories. We know that every inch we gain is hard fought -- whether that is the right of bus drivers to safe scheduling, the right of migrant farm workers to dignified conditions and wages, the right of Howard Center workers to viable wages and working conditions, or the right of nurses to decent pay and safe staffing. And ultimately, the right of ALL workers to livable wages and conditions that recognize our human dignity.

To reclaim Labor Day means recommitting ourselves to the work ahead. It means standing in solidarity with our union sisters and brothers in their struggles for fair contracts. It means supporting adjunct faculty who are, as we speak, fighting for decent contracts, and equally supporting students and recent graduates saddled with massive debt, and putting people over profits in the college dining halls. It means pushing back against the so-called austerity budget that understaffs state departments, freezes state workers’ wages, and underserves the people who count on these workers to provide needed services. It means ensuring that healthcare is truly universal and equitably financed by making healthcare a public good and getting it out of the grasp of the corporate healthcare industry that treats our bodies as tradable commodities on the corporate marketplace.

To reclaim Labor Day means standing up against the destruction and desecration of our planet and against environmental racism. It means taking action against white supremacy. In the words of Alicia Garza, one of the founders of BLM and an organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance: “the state apparatus has built a program of genocide and repression mostly on the backs of Black people—beginning with the theft of millions of people for free labor—and then adapted it to control, murder, and profit off of other communities of color and immigrant communities.” We know that only too well in Vermont.

The VWC congratulates workers who have had recent contract and organizing victories: the nurses at UVM Medical, the workers at City Market, and the farm workers in Migrant Justice. We stand in solidarity with workers who are currently engaged in contract struggles: adjunct faculty at St. Mike’s, Burlington College & Champlain College, homecare workers in AFSCME, and the techs at UVM Medical.

At the Workers’ Center we have long known that workers must organize at the workplace and that we also need to organize in our communities to change the power dynamic. We are organizing throughout the state through our Healthcare Is A Human Right campaign to win universal healthcare, and we will be launching statewide organizing for work with dignity as well. On May Day of 2016 we will be holding Vermont’s second People’s Convention, bringing together activists for social, economic, racial, disability, and environmental justice from across Vermont and beyond. We invite you to come to our table, to join the Workers’ Center, to come to the People’s Convention and help build the movement!