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Who Labored for Your Labor Day Holiday?

Updated on September 6, 2015

Everybody Loves A Paid Holiday!

Labor Day is the official “end of summer” holiday for Americans. Kids are either back to school or will be in a day or two. Summer vacation photos are being downloaded and happy moments relived. We’re trading in the breezy flip-flops for leather shoes. Pedicures are no longer mandatory and millions of women are sighing with relief. It’s time to settle in and settle down.

This particular holiday is a marker of transition in our year--from the leisurely days of summer into a more work day winter mode. People who are unemployed and looking for a job feel the need to really buckle down and get serious about the search. After all, Christmas is just around the corner. Labor Day. It really is an appropriate holiday for this time of year. But what, exactly, does it stand for?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor:

“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

http://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htmhttp://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm

Wow, a holiday that is the “creation of the labor movement”, imagine that. Hey, thanks labor movement for the long weekend! Hey, wait a minute. What the heck is the labor movement anyways?


Impetus for Social Change

The labor movement was a movement to organize workers into unions which could represent their rights and improve their general working conditions. It began in the late nineteenth century, a time when workers had it pretty tough. The world was in transitional mode—from an agrarian society into an industrialized system. We were changing from an independent lifestyle of farmers and craftsmen, loosely organized into granges and guilds, and largely self-sufficient, to a mass workforce of individuals whose livelihoods were now determined by their employer. Suddenly, work requirements and working conditions were established by folks who were building themselves empires supplying the “demands” of newly emerging markets, rather than by the workers themselves.

Employees of these empire builders had little to no control over their working conditions. Labor laws were nonexistent. They worked twelve and fourteen hour days without regular breaks. They worked in conditions that were often dangerous and un-healthy, and they really didn’t have much choice. It’s not like you could find a better job with better “benefits” and “opportunities” somewhere else. Benefits and opportunity were not a part of the conversation.

Now when John Doe was a farmer, a carpenter or a tinsmith, he could work whatever hours suited him. He could take breaks if needed and created his own working conditions. He still worked long hours because he worked without the aid of mechanized equipment, no giant crop machines or electric lathes or mig welders, but at least he worked on his own terms. Not so for the factory workers, miners and railroad laborers of the new steam engine powered industrialized world. And the wealthy industrialists used whatever workforce was available to them in their empire building enterprises.

There were no child labor laws protecting children. They could be used as tunnel rats in mines or forced to crawl around on giant looms in textile factories because their bodies were limber and small and they could easily maneuver in confined spaces. Women often worked in the pathetic conditions of the textile mills and garment factories. They were hot, cramped, dusty and un-ventilated buildings that were dangerously overcrowded and lacked emergency exits and facilities.Women and children worked the same long hours and in the same wretched conditions as men, but for much less money. Children’s pay was typically only ten to twenty percent of the working man’s wages, and women worked for roughly thirty or thirty five percent of the typical male salary. On top of that, hastily and shoddily constructed mills and factories were prone to collapsing right in the middle of a workday, and of course mining disasters and rail line explosions were common occurrences.

The dangerous environments workers were subjected to inevitably resulted in disastrous industrial accidents such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC which caused 100 deaths and encouraged legislators to place improved safety standards in factory workplaces. It also helped to fuel the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, and was the impetus for increased sympathy for American workers rights and organized labor unions in general. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_industrial_disasters


The fight for worker's rights was a long and contentious battle, with skirmishes on many fronts: factories, mines, railroads, textile mills. Even the benevolent idea of the Company Town, which provided housing and a semblance of home for workers and their families, often ended up being just another opportunity for workers to be victimized by opportunistic company representatives. Substandard housing, pay that was docked to cover the expenses of overpriced goods and services and other practices often provided a pathway to poverty and dependency. Workers who became sick or injured found that their wages could not keep up with their "indebtedness" to the Company Town.

So, after working for the man for a while, enduring long hours, poor pay and even less protections from the dangerous conditions of those mines, factories and infrastructure projects, worker’s became disgruntled. They began to talk among themselves about the dismal life of the working man. They realized that organizing into unions that represented workers interests, which was already an established movement in Europe, was necessary. The seeds of a revolution in the labor industry were planted. The empire builders were about to reap what they had sown.


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The Movement Escalates Into A War

Of course, wealthy industrialists were not going to give in without a fight. And fight they did. As tensions between workers and management grew and strikes and walk offs became common practice among organizing workers, some operators, such as Colorado Fuel and Iron, a Rockefeller corporation, hired armies of anti-labor thugs to prevent workers from organizing through the intimidation of threats, clubbings and worse. One famous example of deadly force by corporate entities took place at the Corporations Ludlow, Colorado mine in 1914. By this time, labor organizing was becoming common and so were clashes with management, who were unsympathetic and rarely acted until some kind of disaster forced them to address safety issues. The movement had attracted some pretty rough characters, many new immigrants who had already been involved in the movement in Europe and were now at work in American factories and mines. As the labor groups became more and more dissatisfied with the unwillingness of operators to provide workers with safer, more tolerable conditions, the movement become more and more violent. Eventually it escalated into armed warfare between the labor movement and the industrialists.

The Ludlow Massacre, as it came to be called, started with a violent strike and ended in carnage. The National Guard set fire to tents that workers and their families were occupying at the mine site. Escaping victims were strafed with machine guns, killing 25 people, including eleven children and two women. Public outrage ensued and sympathy for the laborers swelled. This moment in labor movement history was a catalyst for changes in legislation regarding health and safety standards in the workplace, and the rights of workers to organize, but it was by no means an isolated incident. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludlow_Massacre


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Who Won the War?

The systemic inequality of early corporate America fueled the flames of discontent that set the labor movement on fire. Wealthy Americans lived in a bubble of luxury and enjoyed a lifestyle that the workers in their factories, mines and mills could never aspire to. The movement was inspired by desperate men, women and children who were literally fighting for their constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Their efforts changed the landscape of industrialized America and spawned the laws that now protect all of us from unsafe and intolerable working conditions. In the process, America became a country of optimistic individuals who believed that with hard work, you could achieve the American Dream of access to quality education, home ownership, and secure and stable employment and retirement. And thanks to the struggles of the early labor movement, that was largely true. Many of us aren't so sure it is anymore.

American labor laws and practices were changed under duress by the pressure of the labor movement, and generally not because of the good heartedness of Corporate America. But for a number of decades, there was a pretty good working relationship between the two. Happier workers were more productive and things operated more smoothly. The war effort brought everyone together to build the military hardware needed to defeat the enemies of peace and freedom over seas. American manufacturing excelled again. After the war, innovation thrived in the aspirations of a nation intent on opening up the frontiers of space and air travel. Workers who were proud of their work and of their employer were the norm. But that euphoria began to fade during the economic recession of the 1970's, and the 1980's became the decade that labor unions began to be viewed, once again, as un-American. Many of today's political leaders scapegoat unions for various economic woes: From the cost of education to the price of transportation and infrastructure, if we could just do away with unions, we would all be better off. Unions are obsolete. Right?

While scapegoating organized labor is popular, the truth of the matter is a different story.Large scale outsourcing of our manufacturing base has chipped away at the stability of the American workforce. Corporations have morphed into money making machines for stock holders rather than providers of goods and services for consumers and jobs for citizens. As corporate profits grow, and the American workforce is squeezed into lower wage service sector jobs, the elements of the American Dream, once so attainable to the middle class worker, have become harder and harder to achieve. Many blame the labor unions for the downsizing of the economy and the mass exodus of American Corporations. Corporate spokesmen are quick to assert that high labor costs forced them to find cheaper work force sources over seas. They blame the Government for perceived onerous regulations on business practices that forced businesses to move manufacturing out of the country. But much of the blame belongs with the American Business Model of expecting profits to continually grow year after year, every year a larger profit margin and a higher earnings statement to appease the stock holders. And in the mean time, the American worker has been left out in the cold, abandoned by the same corporations that were made great on the backs of the working force. It would appear that the need for workers to organize is more relevant than it has been for decades. Somehow, we have become more sympathetic to the patriots with billions in un taxed off-shore accounts, than we are to the workers who serve us our foods, nurse our sick, school our children, fight our fires, police our streets, pick up our trash, engineer and build our trains, planes, and automobiles, our bridges, buildings and infrastructure. What happened to the value of a hard day's work? Don't people deserve a living wage for all the above goods and services they provide?

Labor unions are actually a very democratic idea. It's the idea that a person's best interests are most secure when that person, in this case the worker, has representation. It's the same precept that inspired the American Revolution, which by the way was sparked by the original Tea Party, a bunch of working men-- carpenters, dressed as Mohawk Indians, chucking tea into Boston Harbor to make a point. Way back then the working man was fighting for representation and for some pathway to fairness and freedom. For everyone.

Today we have the labor movement to thank for laws that protect workers from unsafe working conditions and prevent the exploitation of children. We have overtime pay and sick leave and vacation days and health benefits and a national holiday--Labor Day. All because of the efforts of men, women and children who organized against powerful political and moneyed interests to force employers to make working conditions safe and tolerable and to provide us with leisure time and a few years of retirement to be able to rest a little at the end of our working lives. Aren't we all happier because of it? What's un-American about that?


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