09/06/2011 04:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2011

Made in America: Unemployment and Labor Day

"I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people." -- PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT

"Uh, I pledge allegiance, uh, to all the scramblers/Uh, this is the Star Spangled Banner" -- JAY-Z, "Made in America," featuring Kanye West and Frank Ocean

As we Americans finish off another Labor Day weekend and the traditional end of summer with park outings, barbeques, and parties, I think it very necessary, given the dreadful state of our nation's economy, to recall why this holiday was created originally:

New York's Central Labor Union, a branch of the Knights of Labor, celebrated the very first Labor Day on September 5, 1882. Oregon was the first state to make it an official holiday in 1887. By the time it became a national holiday in 1894, 30 states officially celebrated Labor Day.

But what many of us do not remember, or simply do not know, is that Labor Day was the result of the activism of American workers and their labor unions. The most dramatic example is The Pullman Strike, a nationwide struggle between railroad workers and the railroad industry. Just as some 45,000 Verizon employees recently walked off their jobs because their bosses sought to reduce their benefits, approximately 3000 Pullman workers launched a strike in response to a reduction in wages. At its peak the Pullman Strike involved 250,000 workers in 27 states.

The movement was ultimately brutally crushed when President Grover Cleveland sent in Army troops and United States marshals under the premise the workers were violating many laws, including the delivery of mail. Workers were killed, criminal proceedings were held, and it was one of the bloodiest and costliest labor disputes in American history, cutting across class and race lines.

(Important historical detail: Many Blacks, fearful that the racism expressed by the American Railway Union would lock them out of another labor market, crossed the picket line, which added that racial twist to the union's predicament. African Americans, no doubt, from the late 1800s well into the 1920s, were estranged from organized labor because of racism. An overwhelming number of Black workers often saw their employers, like Henry Ford in Detroit, as far more sympathetic to them than their White co-workers or the labor movement in general. That is precisely why The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was created in 1925 and became the first labor organization led by Blacks to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor.)

Perhaps in an effort to appease the labor movement, and also because he feared more unrest and activism, President Grover Cleveland rushed through Congress a bill making Labor Day a national holiday. Often forgotten is that International Workers' Day, or May Day (every May 1), came first, on the heels of a violent dispute between police and workers in Chicago (the infamous "Haymarket Massacre" of 1886). Definitely appears that President Cleveland likewise wanted to distance American workers from the more protest-in-the-streets spirit of Haymarket and the Pullman Strike.

Thus Labor Day was born, essentially, in the midst of great turmoil and upheaval in the American workforce, not all that different from what we've witnessed in 2011 with American workers, from state to state, battling every manner of attacks on their basic right to organize, even, and to bargain for themselves. We are in an era of strong and irrational anti-union sentiment, not just from conservative Republicans, but Americans across the board are less likely to support labor unions than at any time since the years immediately following World War II.

This is both ironic and tragic, given the history of the labor movement and how it has benefited immigrants, people of color, women, and many others. We take for granted basic American realities like a minimum wage, health benefits, pension funds, eight-hour workdays, and child labor laws. None of these things would be a present-day truth had it not been for American workers dedicated to justice for each of us, even at the expense of their lives.

That's why I support workers in states like Wisconsin, women-led organizations like Domestic Workers United, and why I challenged those who were quick to mock and complain about the Verizon workers strike. We've come a long way since the days of Haymarket and Pullman, but given The Great Recession of the last several years, crisscrossing the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, more than ever working families, be they poor or middle class, need to be supported. And protected.

As a matter of fact, the government just reported there was zero increase in American jobs in August. Unemployment remains at 9.1 percent, and the expectation from the White House, at this moment, is unemployment will not change at least through the end of 2012, or not before the November '12 presidential election.

Aside from the official numbers, I personally know or have encountered Americans of all stripes, from coast to coast, who've been unemployed, or unemployable, for months, and in some cases, years. I have never had so many people in my entire life email, text, tweet, Facebook, or stop me on the streets, at airports, at stores, or even after a speech, asking if I could help them find a job. My Facebook and Twitter pages alone have become a space I now regularly use to alert others to job openings.

I need to add that besides the stunning deterioration of the public school system since I was a child in the 1970s, securing jobs for the average everyday American is the other great challenge of our times. I've read countless articles and studies that suggest that everything from increased cases of domestic violence to nonstop gun shootings to financial scams, online and offline, are the direct or indirect result of people in our nation being so desperate for money that we will do anything to get it. Literally. Or that we are so frustrated with our financial lives, or lack thereof, we are taking out our angst and rage on each other. Literally.

Meanwhile, American corporations have gotten in-your-face bailouts; CEOs of many of these corporations continue to receive record multimillion-dollar annual salaries; and the super-wealthy pay minimal taxes. There are several layers of class conflicts happening in America and it is not just the middle class that needs to be saved. There is poverty in America, including in the hardest hit ghettos of Brooklyn, New York where I've resided for two long decades, which would rival the worst poverty I've seen in severely underdeveloped nations overseas.

This is what Labor Day looks like in America in 2011. And this is why President Barack Obama's jobs proposal speech this week is way past due. Forget whether he gets a second term or not, for a moment. What we need from him more than ever is the kind of big-picture vision President Franklin Roosevelt had during the peak years of The Great Depression. That means the president, the government, employers and employees, all of us, must pledge ourselves to a remixed new deal, with a new name, which is instantly about putting people back to work.

But Barack Obama must set the tone. My sincere hope is that the president will discuss ways to bring manufacturing jobs back to America, to end the mindless cycle of outsourcing American jobs overseas. That he will say pushing for a clean and sustainable economy will create millions of "green jobs" and equally be a blessing to our environment. I hope the president will call for an expansive support of small businesses nationwide, since they are the true engine of the American economy, and have always been. A successful small business means more jobs for more people. Finally, as I watch the Brooklyn Bridge, just minutes from my home, being repaired daily, it is my hope that President Obama will call for a national strategy of putting Americans to work that involves hiring thousands and thousands of folks to repair our streets, highways, tunnels, and bridges. People want to work, have said to me they will do whatever they have to do to earn an honest dollar. This is so evident when I see both children and seasoned adults peddling bottles of water or fruits at the busy and dangerous intersections of New York City, desperate to make just a few bucks each day.

So this is where we are, America, on this Labor Day. This great economic emergency was made in America, and we have no other choice but to scramble and pledge allegiance to each other to get through this. For the sake of our country, and for the sake of our future country.

And if President Obama and his administration do not do the right thing, or if Republicans continue to hold up anything that will help Americans to help ourselves, then I say it is time more of us take to the streets, wherever we are, and protest, peacefully, civilly, but very loudly, that we are fed up and are not going to take the neglect any longer. That would be the best way for every single one of us to honor Labor Day, and all the laborers who came before us, on any given day.

Kevin Powell is a public speaker, activist, and the author or editor of 10 books. His next book will be Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: And Other Blogs and Essays. Email him at, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell