Monday, September 04, 2006

Celebrating Labor Day

Few Americans today can imagine a time in this country where the middle-class lifestyle we've all come to know as "the American Dream" was just that -- a dream. So many of the benefits most of us enjoy today -- the 5-day/40-hour work week, the 2-day weekend, child labor restrictions, 2-weeks paid vacation, time-and-a-half paid overtime, employer-paid health insurance, social security, pension/retirment, paid federal holidays, etc -- were non-existant for half of this nation's history if not more. The vast majority of American workers could hardly dream of such things until they were each brought about by an active and pugnacious labor movement in which ordinary American men, women and children literally fought and died for them.

In view the current American regime's well-documented hostility to these pillars of America's prosperity and well-being, this list of readings on the history of Labor Day serves not only as a holiday-appropriate diversion but as a warning:

Excerpt from The History Channel's History of Labor Day:

As the Industrial Revolution took hold of the nation, the average American in the late 1800s worked 12-hour days, seven days a week in order to make a basic living. Children were also working, as they provided cheap labor to employers and laws against child labor were not strongly enforced.

With the long hours and terrible working conditions, American unions became more prominent and voiced their demands for a better way of life. On Tuesday September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers marched from city hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first-ever Labor Day parade. Participants took an upaid day-off to honor the workers of America, as well as vocalize issues they had with employers. As years passed, more states began to hold these parades, but Congress would not legalize the holiday until 12 years later.

On May 11, 1894, workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago struck to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. They sought support from their union led by Eugene V. Debs and on June 26 the American Railroad Union called a boycott of all Pullman railway cars. Within days, 50,000 rail workers complied and railroad traffic out of Chicago came to a halt. On July 4, President Grover Cleveland dispatched troops to Chicago. Much rioting and bloodshed ensued, but the government's actions broke the strike and the boycott soon collapsed. Debs and three other union officials were jailed for disobeying the injunction. The strike brought worker's rights to the public eye and Congress declared, in 1894, that the first Monday in September would be the holiday for workers, known as Labor Day.

The founder of Labor Day remains unclear, but some credit either Peter McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, or Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, for proposing the holiday.

Although Labor Day is meant as a celebration of the labor movement and its achievements, it has come to be celebrated as the last, long summer weekend before Autumn.


Excerpt from PBS's Origins of Labor Day:
Pullman, Illinois was a company town, founded in 1880 by George Pullman, president of the railroad sleeping car company. Pullman designed and built the town to stand as a utopian workers' community insulated from the moral (and political) seductions of nearby Chicago.

The town was strictly, almost feudally, organized: row houses for the assembly and craft workers; modest Victorians for the managers; and a luxurious hotel where Pullman himself lived and where visiting customers, suppliers, and salesman would lodge while in town.

Its residents all worked for the Pullman company, their paychecks drawn from Pullman bank, and their rent, set by Pullman, deducted automatically from their weekly paychecks. The town, and the company, operated smoothly and successfully for more than a decade.

But in 1893, the Pullman company was caught in the nationwide economic depression. Orders for railroad sleeping cars declined, and George Pullman was forced to lay off hundreds of employees. Those who remained endured wage cuts, even while rents in Pullman remained consistent. Take-home paychecks plummeted.

And so the employees walked out, demanding lower rents and higher pay. The American Railway Union, led by a young Eugene V. Debs, came to the cause of the striking workers, and railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. Rioting, pillaging, and burning of railroad cars soon ensued; mobs of non-union workers joined in.

The strike instantly became a national issue. President Grover Cleveland, faced with nervous railroad executives and interrupted mail trains, declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike. Violence erupted, and two men were killed when U.S. deputy marshals fired on protesters in Kensington, near Chicago, but the strike was doomed.

On August 3, 1894, the strike was declared over. Debs went to prison, his ARU was disbanded, and Pullman employees henceforth signed a pledge that they would never again unionize. Aside from the already existing American Federation of Labor and the various railroad brotherhoods, industrial workers' unions were effectively stamped out and remained so until the Great Depression.

It was not the last time Debs would find himself behind bars, either. Campaigning from his jail cell, Debs would later win almost a million votes for the Socialist ticket in the 1920 presidential race.

In an attempt to appease the nation's workers, Labor Day is born

The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for some time. In September 1892, union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday. But now, protests against President Cleveland's harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation's workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.

1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born. He was not reelected.

See also: The Detroit News' How Labor Won Its Day

Yes, Labor Day is a day to remember how the American dream became a reality for a broad portion of the American population and how it could all be taken away. As they fire up their grills or tune in to the game today, let all the anti-union, "free market" puritans of middle to lower class status in America's right wing be reminded of why they aren't in the office today.