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Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004 02:48 pm

The struggle

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Visitors to the Mount Olive gravesite of labor organizer Mother Jones (1830-1930) leave flowers, union pins, and money. “Pray for the dead,” Jones said, “and fight like hell for the living.”

The dates are engraved in Leslie Orear's memory.

Some years are worthy of celebration: 1867, workdays are limited to eight hours; 1911, Workmen's Compensation Act becomes law; 1929, children are required to finish elementary school before going to work.

Others are more somber: 1886, a bomb kills eight police officers during a labor rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square; 1898, 10 miners and six guards are killed during a strike in Virden.

The timeline continues through the many violent skirmishes and hard-fought political victories that mark the nearly two centuries of Illinois labor history. "Labor Day symbolizes the fruits of our union work," says Orear, who for 35 years has served as president of the Illinois Labor History Society.

For most people, this weekend's holiday serves as the last hurrah before the end of summer, with parades and picnics in more than a dozen areas across the state, including the central-Illinois cities of Bloomington, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Peoria, and Springfield.

Though state tourist offices do not track the numbers of visitors to past Labor Day events, parade organizers even in small-sized cities such as Pana say the holiday draws as many as 20,000 people.

The day leads many to reflect on the uprisings that have led to working-class rights. Some locals go to Oak Ridge Cemetery to visit the gravesite of John L. Lewis, who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960.

Another popular site in the area is the Union Miners' Cemetery in Mount Olive, 50 miles south of Springfield. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery is the final resting place for outspoken labor leader Mary Harris Jones -- popularly known as Mother Jones.

"The cemetery's a block off Route 66 and gets a lot of traffic year-round," says cemetery-board member Ed Becker. "Most people come to visit Mother Jones' gravesite. They leave behind all kinds of things: flowers, union pins, change."

There are also several new projects afoot to memorialize the state's rich labor history.

In Virden, a mural is expected to be installed next fall to commemorate the labor riot there, says John Alexander, a Virden city council member.

And later this month in Chicago, a statue will be erected at the site of the Haymarket massacre, where workers once gathered to demand that employers abide by the eight-hour-workday law.

These conflicts are a critical part of the nation's history, says Orear. And with American jobs now being shipped overseas, he says, there's still much work to be done.

"Labor history is a history of struggle, and it's a struggle that continues."

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