A Look at Labor Day 1964

Today is Labor Day, and political, religious, and community leaders will give speeches to commemorate the day.  For labor leaders, it’s an opportunity to appeal to the working class.  Every working person is affected in some way by state and federal labor laws, and bargaining agreements that set wages and benefits at their place of employment.  Striving to establish workers’ rights and to improve them has been a common cause of the labor movement since the late 19th century, marked by the formation of the American Federation of Labor in 1886 and by federal approval of Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark legislation that the AFL-CIO battled for alongside civil rights leaders.  George Meany (the first President of the AFL-CIO) and Andrew Biemiller (Director of the AFL-CIO Legislation Department) led a campaign to pass the Act in 1963 and into the summer of 1964.  The digitized AFL-CIO News contains articles that show their extraordinary efforts.  Search within 1963 and 1964 by keywords to find out more!

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Photograph of Andrew Biemiller (Director of AFL-CIO Legislative Department) [right] and Thomas E. Harris (AFL-CIO Associate General Counsel) [left] before the Senate Civil Rights Committee, June 28, 1966.

In George Meany’s Labor Day Address on September 8, 1964, he highlights many labor issues of the time, similar to a State of the Union address given by a U.S. President.  He reviews the status and political climate for: unemployment, equal rights and equal opportunity, healthcare and social security, housing, education, poverty, environment, election, and voting.

In regards to equal rights and equal opportunity and the Civil Rights Act, Meany states:

Here, by any reasonable estimate, the progress has been remarkable.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 will go down in history as a landmark in the progress of American society.  It was a bi-partisan achievement, never before approached in time of peace.

But a law does not automatically become a pattern of daily life.  There remains for all of us, whatever our station, the solemn obligation to make the terms of this law meaningful and effective.

The trade union movement played a major role in helping to bring this law into being. We intend to play a major role in helping to enforce its principles, not just in the legal sense, but in the heart, mind, and spirit of America – for the trade union movement exists to advance the cause of brotherhood, to resist injustice, oppression and to make effective all of the rights of man.

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First page of Meany’s Labor Day Speech for broadcast over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network, September 7, 1964.  The speech was shared by press release the next day.

Meany’s Labor Day speech in 1964 demonstrates the value of the labor movement in fighting for the working class.  The passage of the Civil Rights Act is a concrete example of the combined power of the labor and civil rights movements. Meany also states that the battle isn’t over and implementing the legislation will be hard work.  Fifty years later, the AFL-CIO is still fighting for the working class and civil rights are in jeopardy again.  This Labor Day is an opportunity for reflection and resolve to uphold the laws and values of our country to benefit all mankind.

At the University of Maryland Libraries, our AFL-CIO Collections include Labor Day speeches from past AFL Presidents Samuel Gompers and William Green, and AFL-CIO Presidents George Meany, Lane Kirkland, John Sweeney, and Richard Trumka.

For more information about the Civil Rights Act, visit our new exhibit “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” or email us at askhornbake@umd.edu.

RSVP here to attend the grand opening of the exhibit on October 6th!


Jen Eidson is Assistant Labor Collections Archivist in the University of Maryland Libraries.

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