Labor Day, which we will celebrate Monday, is a day set aside to honor the contribution of organized labor to American society. Labor Day has been a federal holiday in the U.S. since 1894. Interestingly, the other workingman’s day, May 1, also has American roots. May Day honors the nationwide strike in 1886 in the U.S. in support of the eight-hour day.
In a strongly conservative and Republican state like Kansas, it is easy to forget about the very real contributions the labor movement has made to the people of Kansas. In the 1870s and 1880s, there was a powerful union of farmers in Kansas called the Farmer’s Alliance, which was part of the coalition that created the Populist Party in 1891. The Populist Party was a major force in Kansas politics in the 1890s and in the years before World War I. During these years, it got enacted a number of labor reforms such as outlawing child labor and ensuring the safety of factories.
Also, Kansas City, Kansas, was home to one of the most well-known, labor-oriented newspapers in U.S. history – Appeal to Reason. This newspaper was in existence from 1896 to 1922. At its height, it had one-half million subscribers from all over the nation.
The importance of the labor movement in Kansas declined after World War I. In part this was because of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Russian communists and their American followers were outspokenly in favor of the rights of working people, but they were also militant atheists who savagely persecuted the Christians of Russia. To a state like Kansas with a strongly Christian tradition among its people, any political philosophy that was hostile to Christianity was unacceptable.
The decline of the labor movement in Kansas was also due to the fact that after 1920, farmers and the urban working people began to go their separate ways. Unlike the situation in the years around the turn of the 20th century, urban workers and small farmers saw themselves less and less as having interests in common.
The election of 2016 has been correctly described as an earthquake. The implications of this earthquake will be felt for years to come. With American politics so much in flux, the question arises as to whether a new wave of labor activism could arise in Kansas as it has in other parts of the nation such as major campaigns to unionize and get better pay and working conditions for fast food workers. I guess the best way to answer this question is to say that the 2016 election showed that a lot of people in America are not happy with the way the economy has treated them. Traditionally, such dissatisfaction has often resulted in a surge of union activity.
Ernest Evans is a Leavenworth Times columnist.