Monday, September 5, 2011

Know Your History: Labor Day

Most people associate the Labor Day holiday as a nice long weekend at the end of the summer - a chance at one last warm weather "harrah" with friends and family before the realities of Fall weather, school or work settle in.

However, at at time when the U.S. economy is in the dumper, corporations are laying people off and outsourcing jobs overseas, unemployment is at a 25 year high and people are working longer hours or multiple jobs just to get by, the realities of why Labor Day came to be are worth revisiting I think.

Here are three things to know about Labor Day in my opinion:

1) The first celebration of labor in the U.S. The first civic observation of labor in the United States happened in 1882 after American labor leader Peter McGuire witnessed celebrations of labor in Toronto, Canada earlier that year. McGuire organized a similar celebration in New York City complete with parades. From that point forward there were increasing numbers of cities and states recognizing labor with a special day or celebration - all usually in that early September time frame. However, it would be another 12 years before nationwide Labor Day came to be. To know why the did this, you need to know more about...

2) The Origins of the Labor Day holiday. As the economies of world modernized in the 1800s to become far more industrial, along with that came the need for workers to work in the factories, mills, printing presses, transportation and other key components of the economy. These jobs did not pay very well, but for many they represented a potential way forward for themselves and their families compared to farming - especially for the continuing waves of European immigrants coming to the U.S. during this time.

But here's the thing. There were no laws governing pay, hours worked, number of days a week worked, age of workers, safety of workers. Neither were there any benefits for workers other than their minimal pay, no social security, no Medicare, no weekend etc. The U.S. economy operated on an unregulated and "laissez fair" level that even most Americans who vote conservative today would be offended by I think. And, on top of that, you can imagine that captains of industry and the wealthy (and the politicians who they supported) were vehemently against giving workers any concessions whatsoever.

As you might imagine, this situation touched conflicts between labor and business. And when I say "conflicts" I mean pitched battles in the streets. People were hospitalized and killed as business-hired thugs and occasionally the US Army were deployed to stop strikes, marches or protests as workers did the one thing they could do - withhold their labor - as they sought some elements of a decent living.

One such clash that brought several decades of conflict to a head was the Pullman Strike in Illinois in 1894 in which 3,000-some railroad workers staged a walkout strike after railroad company management slashed their wages. The strike virtually stopping all railroad traffic in the United States west of Chicago. Between railroad company thuggery and labor union aggression in retaliation there were casualties on top of everything else as the conflict worsened. On the pretext that the strike hindered the delivery of the U.S. Mail, President Cleveland sent in the Army to settle things - and they did with more causalities following. Naturally, the railroad company got off scott free while the labor union leadership were taken to court.

In the aftermath President Cleveland sought to avoid further strife with labor and pushed through a bill establishing the first weekend in September as a national Labor Day holiday. The first one of which was in 1894.

3) Establishing Labor Day didn't really change much. OK, so great. Labor had one day a year to feel good about itself and be collectively recognized. Did this change the conditions under which working people had to persevere? No. All the same issues remained, as did business and government resolve to not give an inch. And that's why vicious conflicts between labor and management continued well into the 20th century.

Only the sad realities of the Great Depression, created in major part due to unregulated business and zero safety net for everyday Americans, could convince society and government to do the right thing and start legislating things like Social Security, workplace safety regulations, hourly limits and more. This is an agenda championed by President Franklin Roosevelt called The New Deal. Ten years later, President Truman attempted to reform the healthcare system to make in more equitable, and in the 1960s President Johnson established Medicare and Medicaid to help the poor and elderly. All of these things helped everyday working people far more than a single day off in early September. Many conservatives at the time called these things "communism" and predicted it would lead to the downfall of the country...and their conservative brethren have been trying to repeal these programs ever since.

So thereyou go...three things about Labor Day you may not have known. Born as an attempt by the government to appease a group of people it had just supprssed with the Army, the day is ideally a chance to reflect on how our economy relies on everyday working people...and, yes, an extra weekend day to say goodbye to summer.

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