Vintage Heller: The Arts for Labor

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Editor’s Note: Over the years, Steven Heller has written thousands of installments of his blog, The Daily Heller. With Vintage Heller, we’re exploring entries from the archives. This post first appeared in September 2012.

In honor of Labor Day 2012, let’s take a look at Labor Day 1882 and beyond. According to the U.S. Department of Labor:

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.

The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day should take were outlined in the first proposal of the holiday—a street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families.

Legend reads, “Service shall with steeled sinews toil, and Labor will refresh itself with hope.”

Since then, labor has been celebrated in many ways, not the least is through the arts. The arts have promoted the nobility, struggles, triumphs and importance of labor in the United States. The documentary organization Labor Arts (located at the Bobst Library NYU, 70 Washington Square South, 10th Floor) is a resource for all things labor (including the images here). It was created in 2000 by Donald Rubin, Evelyn Jones Rich, Moe Foner (1915–2002), Henry Foner, Esther Cohen, Rachel Bernstein and Debra E. Bernhardt (1953–2001), with “skilled help” from Ami Palombo, Keri A. Myers, Jeff Watt, Keith Bush, Angela Powell, Milton Glaser and others. The virtual archives are well worth exploring.

LABOR ARTS is a work in progress—a virtual museum designed to gather, identify and display examples of the cultural and artistic history of working people and to celebrate the trade union movement’s contributions to that history. We invite you to become involved in this exciting project by giving us your suggestions about resources, collections and exhibitions that we can include on our website.

Cover of American Federation of Labor organizing leaflet, which explained to workers their right to organize into unions of their choice, guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) of 1935.
Fred Ellis, artist. The worker, cap in hand, is urging the unemployed to demonstrate in Union Square. Organized by the Trade Union Unity League and the Communist Party, it was one of the largest ever held in the Square.
Labor Defender, published monthly by the International Labor Defense (ILD), contains an articles “Fighting Textile Wage Cuts,” on the 1919 gun battle between Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members and American Legionnaires in Centralia, Washington.
Tribute to Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Pete Toth, member of United Mine Workers Local 2148 in Pricedale, PA, circa 1934.
Sticker from the March-on-Washington Movement: “Winning Democracy for the Negro Is Winning the War for Democracy,” 1942.
This record set contains “This Old World,” “Listen Mr. Bilbo,” “Roll the Union On,” “The Rankin Tree,” “Put It On the Ground” and “I’m A-Lookin’ for a Home.” Artists include Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, Holly Wood, Butch Hawes, Lou Kleinman and Dock Reese.