- Hope on Union
"The Real Labor Day Story"
This is Labor Day weekend. Most of us enjoy the day off on Monday, but we don't think about the reason the day was created. While some romantic versions exist, the truth is embedded in greed, power, and violence.
In the late 1880s, most workers in the U.S. had to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, with no safety nets such as health insurance or vacations. The work was physically demanding, but they were paid extremely low wages. Children also worked on farms, mines, and factories but often only earned pennies a day. The wealthy thought of workers as nothing more than means of making money, and their safety, well-being, and dignity were of no concern. They were miserable "beasts of burden."
The first Labor Day celebration was a one-day strike in New York City in 1882, joined by more than 10,000 workers. The parade ended at an uptown park for a picnic, thus starting a new tradition of celebrating Labor Day with a BBQ. They called for an 8-hour workday and a 6-day workweek. While Labor Day gained popularity, it did not become a federal holiday until after the Pullman Strike of 1894.
For about three months (May 11 to July 20), in 1894, more than 250,000 railroad workers went on a strike that ended with a brutal crackdown by the U.S. military, killing more than 30 workers. It began when the Pullman Palace Car Company, a manufacturer of railroad cars outside of Chicago, cut the already low, near-slavery wages by 25%. But the company did not lower the rent and other charges at Pullman. The company owned the town. Due to the factory's location, the workers had no other options. Workers and their families were left starving to death.
When a delegation of workers met with the company president to present their grievances about low wages, poor living conditions, and 16-hour workdays, they were immediately fired. On May 11, workers walked off the job, and the company immediately closed the factory and laid off all workers. Other railroad unions joined the striking workers at Pullman, and more than 250,000 workers in 27 states joined the strike bringing the U.S. rail traffic to a complete halt.
Then-president Grove Cleveland sent the U.S. military to get the trains moving, and that eventually led to violent confrontations killing more than 30 workers. The news of violence and anxiety of not having food in stores turned the public sentiment against the workers, and on August 2, Pullman agreed to rehire all workers who agreed never to join a union again. Starving workers had no choice but to acquiesce.
In the midst of the national turmoil, Grover Cleveland, in hopes of gaining the support of workers and the public for reelection, made Labor Day a federal holiday. The U.S. celebration of labor was placed at the halfway point between July 4 and Thanksgiving. It was intentionally distanced from May Day, or International Workers' Day, because socialists supported the global commemoration of workers on May 1.
Labor Day is not only for us to have a BBQ and have a day off, but it is a time for us to examine our attitudes about work and workers. In 2022, the average CEO made $10.6 million a year, and the average worker only made $23,968. The average wage gap between CEOs and lowest paid staff in the 1950s was 30 to 1, and in 2022 it grew to 670 to 1. In 49 firms, the ratio exceeded 1000 to 1.
We need wages of workers tied to the CEO's salaries. What if we say CEOs can only make 50 times more than their workers? If CEOs want to make more, they can, as long as they give raises to other workers.
The U.S. definitely has a problem understanding the value of work and workers. This Labor Day, between our hot dogs on the grill, let us thank the workers who made our BBQ possible and give thanks for their labor.