By Michael Messina
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. And with Labor Day fast approaching, I thought we should take a look at other speeches past that speak of the role of labor in our country.
Labor Day is THE day of the year to lift up the American worker with words of high praise and affection. But for all our oratories of admiration and thanks, none can compare to the eloquent words of those spoken on past Labor Days by the much loftier voices of our Presidents.
And so we present a compilation of some of the best presidential quotes on the importance of unions and labor.
Know a great quote you don’t see here (presidential or not)? Add it to the comments below!
John F. Kennedy (excerpts from his “Special Labor Day Message,” Sept. 5, 1960):
“American labor has insisted upon, and won, the highest wages and best working conditions in the world. You have not been content to sit still and let well enough alone. You have shown that high living standards can be won within the context of freedom.”
“Our unions have fought for aid to education, better housing, further development of our rich natural resources, and to save the family-size farm. They speak not for narrow self-interest, but for the public interest and the people.”
“Collective bargaining has always been the bedrock of the American labor movement.”
“Free collective bargaining is good for the entire Nation.”
“In the crucial years ahead, organized labor will have much to contribute to the cause of democracy. May I say, then, God bless you in your efforts. May they be rewarded in the creation of a better world for all who seek freedom.”
Barack Obama (2011 Labor Day event in Detroit):
“I also want to talk about the work you’ve been doing for decades: Work to make sure that folks get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Work to make sure that families get a fair shake. The work you’ve done that helped build the greatest middle class the world has ever known. I’m talking about the work that got us a 40-hour workweek and weekends, and paid leave and pensions, and the minimum wage and health insurance, and Social Security and Medicare the cornerstones of middle-class security. That’s because of your work.”
“If you want to know who helped lay these cornerstones of an American middle class you just have to look for the union label.”
“That’s the bedrock this country is built on. Hard work. Responsibility. Sacrifice. Looking out for one another. Giving everybody a shot, everybody a chance to share in America’s prosperity, from the factory floor to the boardroom. That’s what unions are all about.”
“Now, the fact is, our economy is stronger when workers are getting paid good wages and good benefits. (Applause.) Our economy is stronger when we’ve got broad-based growth and broad-based prosperity. That’s what unions have always been about — shared prosperity.”
“Unions understand they need to help drive the change, whether it’s on the factory floor, or in the classroom, or in the government office.”
“I know we don’t give up our dreams and settle for something less. We roll up our sleeves — and we remember a fundamental truth of our history: We are strong when we are united.”
Harry S. Truman (Labor Day Address in Cadillac Square, Detroit. September 6, 1948)
“In unity there is strength. Working people need every ounce of strength they possess to meet today’s problems.”
“I believe that a strong and free labor movement constitutes a tremendous force for preserving our form of government.”
“The gains of labor were not accomplished at the expense of the rest of the Nation. Labor gains contributed to the Nation’s general prosperity.”
“Our basic social freedoms can be traced largely to the fact that labor had its birth of real freedom in the United States of America. That is why our fathers came to America-to find the country where the man who worked with his hands is as good as the next man.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt (Labor Day radio address. Sept. 1, 1941)
“We know that a free labor system is the very foundation of a functioning democracy.”
“The present position of labor in the United States as an interdependent unit in the life of the Nation has not come about by chance. It has been an evolutionary process of a healthy democracy at work.”
“American workers, American farmers, American businessmen, American church people—all of us together—have the great responsibility and the great privilege of laboring to build a democratic world on enduring foundations.”
“Free labor has the inspiration of hope.” – Sept. 17, 1859
“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” – March 21, 1864
“The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.” – March 21, 1864
“All that serves labor, serves the nation. All that harms labor is treason. If a man tells you he loves America yet hates labor, he is a liar. There is no America without labor, and to rob one is to fleece the other.”