Recently, the meaning behind Labor Day has faded into the background with the passing of each year. While some still honor and observe the holiday’s significance, a national holiday since 1894, most see it solely as a day off and an end to the summer. Since 2009, the West Michigan Labor Fest has kept the celebration alive and at the forefront with a festival surrounding the Spirit of Solidarity Monument in downtown Grand Rapids.
“The festival takes place around the Spirit of Solidarity Monument out at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum because of what it represents,” said Committee Chair, and Grand Rapids Employees Independent Union member, Tracey Roerig. “The monument represents the furniture factory workers in Grand Rapids and the fight they endured for workers rights.”
The West Michigan Labor Fest celebrates the rights of all workers and unions with a local focus. The Spirit of Solidarity Monument was completed in 2007 to honor the bravery of the striking immigrant workers in 1911. The strike lasted four months, from April to August, and demanded a nine-hour day, a 10 percent raise to offset the rising cost of living, the abolition of pay based on piece work, and the right to have unions to bargain with factory owners. The strike ended on August 19 when strikers voted to end the walkout without reaching their demands. While the strike didn’t yield its stated goals, the will of the worker lives on.
During West Michigan Labor Fest – which takes place from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. at Ah-Nab-Awen Park (located in front of the Ford Museum) – families can enjoy free admission to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, free live entertainment, rides and games for children, arts and crafts, food vendors and a beer tent.
“If the weather is nice, we expect about three to four-thousand to attend the festival,” said Roerig.
Labor Day and its inclusion as a national holiday stems from stressed worker-owner relations, a national strike, and a President looking to appease working-class owners during an election year. In the later part of the 19th century, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, labor unions utilized strikes to fight for higher pay and better working conditions.
Such was the case in 1893 when the Pullman railroad company was caught in the nationwide economic depression and was forced to lay off hundreds of employees while levying wage cuts on the employees that remained. In May of 1894, the employees went on strike and it immediately became a national issue. Then President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and sent 12,000 troops to break it up. Violence and riots ensured resulting in deaths of more than a dozen workers. The strike ended on August 3, 1894 with the mid-term election on the horizon. Cleveland and the Democratic held Congress worried about a fallout in the polls due to a weakened economy and stressed worker relations. So Congress quickly, and unanimously, passed a bill declaring Labor Day a national holiday.
However, the conciliation effort failed miserably. The Republicans took back both the Senate and the House, with the House of Representatives seeing the largest swing in history with the Republicans gaining 130 seats and the Democrats losing 127.
West Michigan Labor Fest looks to keep those who attend educated on the importance of labor unions.
“Ten local unions will have booths set up to help educate those regarding the unions and why Labor Day is important,” said Eric Vandersteel, a member of the G.R. Federation of Musicians and on the committee for the West Michigan Labor Fest. “They tell stories about organized labor. Everyone from retirees to current working union members are there to share their stories.”
“The different labor booths around the festival help keep the spirit of Labor Day alive. One year we had a test with Labor Day information on it!” added Roerig.
The history is heavy and important, but ultimately Labor Day is a celebration, and Roerig and the rest of the West Michigan Labor Fest committee wants to make sure everyone has a great time.
“Kids and families come down and dance with the band in the grass. It’s a nice family atmosphere and is free for everyone to attend.”