Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Labor Day

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland pushed legislation through Congress making Labor Day a national holiday. His top priority was reconciliation with Labor. He, like many Americans, was scared. Just six days before, US marshals and soldiers had forcibly ended the Pullman Strike in Chicago, killing many workers. And there was trouble brewing throughout the country.


Because things were in a mess. In the northwest woods and northeast textile mills, in mines in Colorado and Kentucky, in the vast fields of grain and on the docks of every shore, workers were fed up with bad pay, dangerous workplaces and deplorable living conditions.

The mess had been building for a long time. Urbanization, industrialization, unchecked monopolies and corporate exploitation of both people and resources had resulted in endemic poverty. On assembly lines, in mines, in forests and fields throughout the country, owners’ first objective was profit. Surging population growth and mass immigration made the labor supply seem unlimited. Some 3.5 million men roamed the West searching for work. They would take anything.

Not everyone was having a hard time. Some ten percent of the population was prosperous and content. But most people were struggling for survival.

In 1907, striking steel workers told reporters: “We live underneath America.” What they meant was that they lived under the line of vision of people with nice houses, steady jobs and Norman Rockwell lives. People sitting on their middle class porches tended to believe that anyone who worked hard enough could ‘make it’. And all those who didn’t, who might be unemployed, standing in breadlines, living in shacks or tent cities or under bridges were simply weak, lazy, shiftless and somehow unworthy.

Among those ‘unworthies’ were hundreds and hundreds of people working to change things. Unions were formed. Reforms introduced. Assistance provided. In the nearly 50 years between 1894 and 1936, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, thousands of heroes worked to make things better.

It would be a good idea to remember that the privileges we have today – the eight-hour day, weekends, vacations, sick pay, maternity leave – privileges to which we feel entitled – are privileges gained because a lot of people worked to make them happen. Labor Day would be a good time to do that.

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