Remembering Our Past For Our Children’s Sake
By James Haslam

Burlington Free Press My Turn, Labor Day, Sept 3rd, 2007
(A longer version which ran August 30th in Bennington Banner can be viewed by clicking here)

Labor Day has lost much of its original meaning. A day once set aside to pay tribute to the achievements of working people now has more to do with shopping at big box stores than with honoring the “Labor Movement: The Folks That Brought You The Weekend.” Realizing that existing Labor Day events had little to do with historic Labor Day, Vermont labor activists started the Burlington Labor Day Parade & Free Community Cookout to celebrate labor’s role as a force for progressive economic change and justice.. 

While ideals of democratic freedoms were celebrated in our Constitution, we should also recognize the realities of exploitation, racism, and extermination of the Native Americans. Slavery was written into the Constitution. Laws limited suffrage to men of property. The advancement of democracy and freedom has more to do with the struggles of working people than with the triumph over the British Crown. 

We have been denied our history. In 1882, when the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City, workers were fighting for the eight hour day because they believed people should have time to spend time with their families. Vermont farm girls who had gone to work in the textile sweatshops in Massachusetts were amongst 30,000 women and girls, many immigrants, who rebelled in the 1912 “Bread & Roses” strike. Workers’ action ended child labor. Free speech, the right to vote, the right to organize, and public education for all were won through struggle. While we have been pitted against each other by race, creed or immigrant status, our gains were made when we united for the benefit of all.

Barre granite workers’ history shows us we had to fight for safe, dignified work lives. Winning improved conditions in workplaces and in our communities didn’t come easy. In the face of deportations, physical and economic violence, we overcame temporary defeats through solidarity, including sit-down strikes, and mobilizing the community to win economic justice. This is our history, which we do a great disservice to ourselves to ignore.  

Today, unions are on the decline due to corporate assault, and as a result the nation suffers from unconstrained corporate greed. The past gains achieved by workers banding together are being whittled away; the middle-class is being squeezed and we have the most economic inequality in our history. 

But our movement is reorganizing to reestablish labor’s role as a force for justice. When Michael Moore’s film Sicko exposed the harmful impact of the insurance industry on healthcare, it sparked thousands of nurses across the country to join others to begin organizing for universal, single-payer healthcare. Verizon workers are fighting against the anti-worker and anti-customer sale of their company to Fairpoint to protect good jobs and lead a movement for universal fiber optic high-speed internet access. Workers, students, and community members in Burlington are organizing for livable wage policies in the Burlington Schools and the University of Vermont, which would help raise wages for low-income workers region-wide. 

The multinational corporations, and the politicians in their service, are pushing a “free trade” agenda, resulting in incredible wealth for the few, and growing inequality, jobs losses and insecurity for millions. Their quest for political and economic domination has mired us in a disastrous war and occupation with human and economic costs that will plague us for generations. But the future is unwritten: worldwide, people are organizing for justice in their workplaces and communities – “Another World Is Possible”.

Join us in Burlington this Labor Day to honor labor’s achievements, but also to connect with other Vermonters interested in building a broad movement for social justice. Let’s transcend differences to build alliances across borders, to build a better world for our children. 

James Haslam is the Director/Lead Organizer for the Vermont Workers’ Center – Jobs With Justice. He can be reached at