All his life, Albert Bass has been a witness to the dignity – and importance – of work.
When he was a boy, his father dug for coal in West Virginia, enduring some of the harshest working conditions found in any U.S. industry. He remembers his dad using a belt to strap his hand to his chest after several of his fingers had been smashed in the mines, just so he could march on Veterans Day.
When the family moved to Chicago and his father worked in a steel mill, Bass followed suit and became an ironworker. Bass, 64, now helps lead an apprentice program for Local 1, an ironworkers’ union, out of an office on Industrial Drive in Forest Park. His son, meanwhile, has picked up the trade and is out climbing the skeletons of Chicago’s skyline.
Unions and the fight for justice in the workplace are in his lineage. But even Bass says that come Labor Day, he’s likely to ignore the history behind this holiday.
“The sad thing about Labor Day, me included, is that it’s become a holiday like Veterans Day,” Bass said. “It’s become just a day off work.”
President Grover Cleveland declared Sept. 1 a day of rest for workers across the country. But internationally, May Day is celebrated in recognition of the labor movement, and on a far greater scale.
Not far from Bass’s office at the Forest Home Cemetery, Lady Justice stands over a fallen worker in tribute to the Haymarket Martyrs who were executed in Chicago in 1887. Hanged for a murder they didn’t commit, the labor activists who were killed that day fought for workplace conditions that are so commonplace today it’s difficult to fathom otherwise.
In the mid 1880s, when the labor movement began to pickup steam, employers often demanded 10 and 12-hour workdays, exploited children and had unsafe environments.
“People got fed up,” Bass said of the labor movement.
Albert Parsons, one of the Haymarket Martyrs, organized a march of 80,000 workers up Michigan Avenue to rally support for the eight-hour workday. The event, held May 1, 1886, was later commemorated as May Day in virtually every country across the globe-except the U.S.
Parsons is among the historically significant members of the labor movement buried in Forest Park in an area of the cemetery known as Dissenters’ Row. Cemetery caretakers and village officials said it has been several years since any organized services were held at the graves on Labor Day. May Day still draws a shrinking, but faithful contingent.
Larry Spivack, president of the Illinois Labor History Society, helps Chicago workers pay tribute every year to the labor movement with a downtown ceremony on Labor Day. Spivack, too, acknowledged the public’s lackadaisical view of Labor Day, but said there are still plenty of opportunities for remembrance.
There is a strong connection between labor and faith, said Spivack, and many churches and synagogues will invite guest speakers. Municipal officials can do their part by adopting a resolution in honor of Labor Day, and certainly various labor groups would appreciate monetary donations, he said.
“We ask that people reflect on the meaning of the holiday and take action,” Spivack said. “Go work in a soup kitchen on Labor Day.”
Though labor is often associated with blue collar industries, both Spivack and Bass said Labor Day should not be an exclusive holiday. There are plenty of office jobs in which employees work more than 40 hours a week, but don’t get overtime pay, Bass said. And though both men credit unions for helping to establish workplace standards in every industry in the country, Labor Day is not a union-only holiday.
“We’re all workers,” Spivack said.