To most Americans, the first Monday in September means a three-day weekend and the last hurrah of summer, a final outing at the shore before school begins, a family picnic.
But Labor Day was born in a time when work was no picnic. As America was moving from farms to factories in the Industrial Age, there was a long, violent, often-deadly struggle for fundamental workers' rights, a struggle that in many ways was America's "other civil war."
It was a war fought when 12-hour days and six-day weeks were routine. Wages were low; there were no sick days, pensions or holidays. There was certainly no unemployment insurance. Any attempts at organizing were met by the combined wrath of business and government. The business of America was business.
That conflict, a period in which thousands of workers died in America's unsafe and unsanitary factories and mines, and hundreds more died in riots and pitched battles over workers' rights, is the little-noted history behind this holiday.
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During the economic depression known as the Panic of 1893, workers for the Pullman Car Co., one of the country's largest manufacturers, walked off their jobs when Pullman tried to cut wages, fire workers and evict them from their company-owned homes. They were joined by hundreds of thousands of workers in a nationwide walkout. Facing a strike that would shut down America's railroads, Cleveland dispatched 12,000 federal troops on the premise that the strike interfered with the U.S. Mail. In the ensuing violence, at least 13 strikers were killed.
This was not the first time troops had been used against American workers. Federal soldiers, state militias and private armies, often from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, had used deadly force to break many 19th-century strikes. Some of these strikes had become pitched battles, like the Homestead strike of 1892 in Pennsylvania. There, men on both sides armed with rifles and cannons died fighting over keeping a union at a steel mill, a union that owner Andrew Carnegie and manager Henry Frick were determined to break.
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With that in mind, it is worth recalling President Abraham Lincoln's words during the dark early days of the real Civil War. "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed," he told Congress in December 1861. "Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration,"
Today, the first Republican president's words would count as heresy in the GOP. But they are a sharp reminder that working men and women built this country and fought its wars. And their labors are worth more than a Monday holiday or the mean-spirited contempt they now face. They deserve, as Lincoln said, "the higher consideration."
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kenneth Davis.
Actually, no they're not. I am in total agreement!
H/T to Ed.
Update: I linked to this post on my Facebook page, and included this text:
The people who fought and died to make this country what it was a few short years ago, but is no more, did not all die in foreign wars. Many died right here fighting for the rights we are now letting slip away. Those who did were not bankers and industrialists. They were laborers, and we have forgotten them.
Calculated Risk points out just how thorough this forgetting has been. No Labor-related news stories at the NY Times, LA Times, WSJ (well - what would you expect?) WaPo, CNBC . . .
The future of labor is unemployment. The unemployed have little hope, and what they have is fading
. (pdf, quoted at CR)
"Misery. Bleak expectations. And almost no labor stories ... on Labor Day."