As Labor Day approaches once again, residents are busy planning for end of summer celebrations, bar-be-ques, carnivals, parades and beach outings, sales and last minute vacations. Monday, September 4, 2017 is the 123rd national Labor Day celebration. New Jersey was one of several states that began their celebrations in the decade leading up to the federal declaration signed on June 28, 1894 when President Grover Cleveland, a native of Caldwell, New Jersey, created the first official Labor Day. The first federal celebration took place on September 3, 1894. (http://www.labormuseum.net/?p=events-calendar&event_id=320)
I grew up on a farm in Western Pennsylvania. While the farm provided us with ample food, it was not cash efficient so my father and all of my uncles worked in the local mill and belonged to the union. My earliest union memories are of the sweet green and red cellophane wrapped popcorn balls and candy canes in the Christmas stockings my father brought home every year just before Christmas that we were not permitted to open until Christmas day! Later in life as a proud United Federation of Teachers member, I marched each year in the NYC Labor Day parade. During my 6 years as president of the ATSS/UFT, I was organizing a marching unit. Those are all fond memories.
The US Department of Labor describes Labor Day as a “yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” (https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history) Labor Day was created as a celebration of the social and economic achievements and contributions American workers have made to American prosperity and well-being. In many parts of the nation and across New Jersey, Labor Day weekend provides an opportunity for members of Labor Unions and other civic organizations to march in parades, and for labor and political leaders to give speeches celebrating the benefits organized labor has brought. These benefits include the 40 hour work week, paid holidays and sick leave, safer labor practices and working conditions, in addition to pension programs, and wage and salary guarantees developed through collective bargaining agreements. And in the uniquely American health care mechanism which ties health care to employment, unions have filled in the slack with special “Welfare Funds” to provide vision and dental benefits. There are labor organizations representing workers in all areas of employment, from municipal and state employees, to construction, education, sports and the arts. Actors Equity is a union. The National Football Players Association is a union. The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association is a union. The National Education Association is a union. They are all bargaining units for their members.
What does Labor Day mean for residents of Morris County? As I campaigned last year around Morris County, it dawned on me that Labor Day did not represent the same thing here as I had experienced in Pennsylvania and New York. Special celebrations enable people to share customs and build traditions. In Morris County, two municipalities organize carnivals and parades, Boonton and Mendham and Riverdale has a street fair.
The Boonton Labor Day festivities have been sponsored by their Fire Department for the past 126 years. Their carnival begins on Thursday, August 31st and runs through Sunday at Midnight. There is a parade on Saturday September 2nd from 1:30- 4 pm. According to their website (www.boontonfd.com/new-events), the parade assembles in West Boonton, proceed down Main Street to Grant Street, and Old Boonton Road, and end at the Boonton High School. Trophies are awarded to participating fire department EMS units, firefighting equipment and ladies auxiliaries. Boonton has been celebrating their fire department for even more years than the country has been recognizing a national holiday for labor!
The Mendham parade on Monday, September 4th culminates a 3 day carnival sponsored by the Passtime Club. The parade features political leaders, youth teams, marching bands and fire department equipment, and EMS vehicles, with lots of candy for waiting children.
Riverdale will sponsor a Street Fair on Monday, September 4, 2017 from 10 am to 5 pm, on Newark Pompton Turnpike, with local food and merchant exhibitors, children’s and crafts activities.
There is a Nordic festival on Sunday, September 3, 2017 at Vasa Park at Budd Lake from 10 am to 6 pm featuring the culture of six Nordic nations, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.
While each of these activities bring people together to celebrate music and cultural organizations, where participants enjoy good food, entertainment and fireworks, where do our youth learn about the real reasons why the federal holiday was established? Most schools do not return to session until a few days after the holiday, and the energy at the beginning of the school year is directed more toward launching the new school year, establishing routines and solving registration issues than looking back to Labor Day! Everyone, teachers, parents and students are busy preparing for the new school year!
One goal in the creation of the original Labor Day as a federal holiday was the provision of a day of rest and celebration for the working person. We have accomplished half of that goal, but I fear that the actual reason has been lost in the season. As with so many of our other holidays, the real purpose of the day has been obsured, and our celebrations become merely mechanical.
There are many places in New Jersey where the story is still told. One opportunity may be found at the Botto house in Patterson, the home of the Labor History Museum. (http://www.labormuseum.net/). This museum provides an interesting insight into the role Patterson played in the developing labor movement. The American Labor Museum/Botto House co-sponsors a parade in the Borough of Haledon and the City of Paterson, on Sunday, September 3, which steps off from the Botto House at 1:30 and finishes at the Great Falls Historic District in Paterson. The Museum is also open to visitors that day. The Botto House National Landmark is located at 83 Norwood Street in Haledon, New Jersey (Phone 973-595-7953). The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 1 to 4 pm. It is well worth the trip!
I had attempted to organize a Labor Day festival in Morristown with exhibits, speeches and children’s activities, but the venue I selected did not work out. So this article will have to suffice!
If you wish to march with many of north New Jersey’s unions, they will gather in Newark on September 4th to celebrate their membership and accentuate modern day issues. Where ever you choose to celebrate this national holiday, please take a few minutes to think about the contributions American workers have made to the economic and social vitality of our county.