From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “The Forgotten Meaning of Labor Day”

The 1894 Pullman strike

It may be hard for Americans to get inspired to celebrate Labor Day for what it is supposed to honor, especially with teachers unions working to keep America locked down and students barely educated in pursuit of a partisan political agenda, and pro athlete unions bullying sports leagues into ruining their product by turning them into political propaganda vehicles, and the postal workers union partisan bias eroding trust in the upcoming election. Nonetheless, there is a good reason to celebrate Labor Day.

This Ethics Alarms post from 2012 explains what that reason is.

Labor Day commemorates one of the great ethical victories of American society, and not one in a hundred Americans know it. Labor Day marks the end of summer, and a time for retail store sales, and the last chance to get away to Disney World, but few of us think about the real meaning of the word “labor” in the name, and how it is meant to honor brave, dedicated men and women who fought, sometimes literally, the forces of greed, political influence, wealth and privilege in this country to ensure a measure of safety, consideration, fairness and justice for the hardest working among us.

Today labor unions are controversial, and with good reason. Many of them have been run as criminal enterprises, with deep connections to organized crime; many operate in a blatantly coercive and undemocratic fashion. Union demands and strong-arm tactics, while providing security and good wages to members, have crippled some American industries, and limited jobs as well. Today the unions  get publicity when one of them tries to protect a member who should be punished, as when the baseball players’ union fights suspensions for player insubordination or even drug use, or when school districts are afraid to fire incompetent teachers because of union power, or when the members of public unions protest cutbacks in benefits that their private sector counterparts would be grateful for. It is true that today’s unions often embody longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer’s observation that  “Every great cause begins as a movement, degenerates into a business and ends up as a racket.” *

That not what Labor Day honors, however. It is celebrating the original labor movement that began at the end of the 19th century, and that eventually rescued the United States from an industrial and manufacturing system that was cruel, exploitive, deadly and feudal. Why the elementary schools teach nothing about this inspiring and important movement, I do not know. I suspect that the story of the American labor movement was deemed politically dangerous to teach during the various Red Scares, and fell out of the curriculum, never to return. Whatever the reason, it is disgraceful, for the achievements of the labor movement are every bit as important and inspiring as those of the civil rights movement and the achievements of our armed forces in the protection of liberty abroad.

One could argue that the movement began in 1886, when a peaceful labor rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago suddenly turned violent after police arrived and ordered the meeting to end. A bomb was thrown into the crowd—no body knows by whom—and the police reacted with gunshots shooting and by beating the crowd with clubs. Within minutes, eight people were killed, and over 120 police and onlookers were injured. The police seized the opportunity to arrest eight so-called “anarchists” (that is, pro-labor advocates), and authorities charged them with conspiracy to commit murder, though there was little evidence and the police themselves had sparked the riot. One of those arrested, Oscar Neebe, made a speech at the trial that provides a partial picture of  the status of the American worker at the time:

“I saw the bakers in the city were treated like dogs. I helped organize them. That is a great crime. The men are now working ten hours a day instead of 14 or 16 hours…that is another crime. And I committed an even greater crime than that. I saw in the morning when I drove away with my team that the beer brewers of the city went to work at 4 o’clock in the morning. They came home at 7 or 8 o’clock at night…they never saw their families or children by daylight. I worked to organize them. That is a great crime.”

Neebe and six others were sentenced to death after that trial—one of the jurors was a relative of one of the dead police officers—and the war between business and labor was officially on, with the newspapers and government firmly allied to business. Labor organizers were regarded as criminals.

In 1893, the Pullman Railroad Car Company responded to a recession by cutting wages 25 per cent to preserve its huge profits. Pullman’s workers were living in an infamous town built by George Pullman and run like a medieval manor, with Pullman as king. He owned everything, the stores, even the churches and libraries. One Pullman worker said, “We’re born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shop, taught in the Pullman school, blessed in a Pullman church, and when we die, we shall be buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to Pullman Hell.”  The workers went on strike, and when it began to wain, and Eugene V. Debs’ American Railway Union ordered a full-scale national strike in its support. By the summer of 1894, 125,000 railroad men were on strike across the country, freezing transportation on twenty railroads in 27 states. The  railroads demanded federal intervention, and the courts obliged, issuing injunctions banning the strike as unlawful. Federal troops arrived to enforce the injunctions in Chicago, the railroad industry’s center. There were riots, fires, shootings, and 34 deaths, most of them victims of the troops. But the violence was spun by the news media, and it turned public opinion against Debs and the workers. The strike was broken. Naturally, they indicted Eugene Debs.

He was defended by Clarence Darrow, 40 years before the Scopes Trial and at the beginning of more than a decade as the nation’s top crusading pro-labor lawyer. He told the jury,

“This is a historic case which will count much for liberty or against liberty. The charge of conspiracy, from the days of tyranny in England down to the day George Pullman used it as a club, has been the favorite weapon of every tyrant. It is an effort to punish the crime of thought….It is an effort to keep the powerless in chains, by denying them the right to make up in numbers what they lack in wealth. Oh, there is a dark conspiracy here, have no doubt of that. There is a conspiracy against Eugene Debs, a conspiracy sinister and far-reaching. The conspirators are George Pullman and the legislators he buys; the conspirators are the courts, which twist and warp our laws to protect the guilty; the conspirators are the soldiers and the police, who use deadly means against those whose only crime is to be hungry.”

Debs went to jail, but a little progress was made, and there was more to come. Also to come: more strikes, riots, indictments, trials and deaths…also more courage and sacrifice. Over the next century other martyrs and heroes joined Neebe, Debs, and Darrow: Albert and Lucy Parsons, John L. Lewis, Mother Jones, Cesar Chavez, Jane Addams, Samuel Gompers  Rudy Lozano, Joe Hill,  A. Phillip Randolph, Addie Wyatt, and many others, some whose names are lost to history. Those dediacted Americans and the citizens who followed them personify what Labor Day commemorates, for they won us a nation without child labor, with fair wages and reasonable work hours, with employee benefits and genuine concern for employee safety, and where greedy, cruel and unjust employers are restrained by laws and regulations, not protected by them. How this was achieved is an epic story that all Americans should know and take pride in, on this day and every other.

That we do not is a national shame.

* This is how Hoffer’s quote is commonly paraphrased today. What he actually wrote (In his 1967 book, “The Temper of Our Time”) was “What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.”

10 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “The Forgotten Meaning of Labor Day”

  1. Nice concise history lesson. I would have included the IWW or Wobblies. My understanding was they were responsible for the Haymarket bombing. I suppose who is blamed is determined by the writer of the account. But, the Wobblies were the equivalent of Antifa today. Neither of whom seemed to have any ideas on how to achieve a theoretical goal.

    Even the word sabotage is derived from the throwing of wooden lasts for shoes into the machinery.

  2. Ironic how the media are now carrying the water of the mostly peaceful protestors and the BLM movement and the protests to end systemic racism and defund the police thinking they’re righting any number of wrongs by doing so. A person could effortlessly write a hagiographic portrait of the current protestors exactly like this if one were so inclined. The media are currently as in the bag of the lefties as were the media of the late 19th century in the monopolists’ bag.

  3. One point of clarification regarding the union movement comes from my father–a life-long union member, even after he moved into management. He was a member of a trade union which he strongly supported but was opposed to public unions. The distinction came with the responsibility of the union to train their members so that a union worker was fully prepared to offer a “day’s work for a day’s pay”–the assurance that both parties lived up to their responsibility. Public employees have no such training and, therefore, in his opinion, do not deserve the protection of a union. He recalled the general strike of 1934 and the funeral march down Market Street of 50,000 that resulted in the eventual settlement of the longshoreman’s strike. Key to that march was the participation of women and children which discouraged the police from attacking the crowd. It was that kind of bravery–women and children placing themselves at risk–that forced the hand of management. I can’t help but think that this same kind of bravery needs to be present if we are to be successful in fighting the current reign of terror.

  4. One could argue that the movement began in 1886, when a peaceful labor rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago suddenly turned violent after police arrived and ordered the meeting to end.

    One could argue that it began in 1619 (yes, that infamous year 1619).

    http://www.polishamericancenter.org/FirstSettlers.html

    On July 30, 1619, the Polish settlers accomplished another noteworthy achievement in the Jamestown colony by staging the first labor strike in America. After being denied participation in the first Virginia assembly, the Polish settlers conducted a labor walkout, not for wages or better working conditions, but for democratic rights. The newly formed House of Burgesses quickly acknowledged the vital role of the Poles in the settlement’s well being and granted them the same voting privileges as those enjoyed by the English.

  5. Why the elementary schools teach nothing about this inspiring and important movement, I do not know. I suspect that the story of the American labor movement was deemed politically dangerous to teach during the various Red Scares, and fell out of the curriculum, never to return.

    I suspect you are right. I don’t see the current Democratic party having the political courage to resurrect it. Or desire to. In many ways, they are far to the Right of Eisenhower era Republicans.

    Those dediacted(sic) Americans and the citizens who followed them personify what Labor Day commemorates, for they won us a nation without child labor, with fair wages and reasonable work hours, with employee benefits and genuine concern for employee safety, and where greedy, cruel and unjust employers are restrained by laws and regulations, not protected by them.

    Then you lost it, to a great extent. “Fair wages and reasonable work hours” is something of a bad joke in the gig economy.

    greedy, cruel and unjust employers and are restrained by laws and regulations, not protected by them

    Really? What planet is this? Have you not noticed the massive backlash against such “laws and regulations” and the successful repeal of many? Not all, by any means, but enough to ensure industrial accidents are on the rise.

    Right now, this is something of a National Security issue. Low pay and lack of sick leave forces many infectious individuals to come to work anyway, if they are not to starve. It’s bad enough here in Australia, too many jobs are casualised or part time. In the US, worse, hence the what, 192,000 deaths (excess mortality 230,000 so this may be an undercount). There is a reason why the US is #1 in so many viral metrics.

    Trump’s mismanagement accounts for 150,000 at most. There is no way things are going to get better anytime soon under a change of regime, and that’s because the US society is what it is. A cultural change – starting with the teaching of the history of Labor Day – is needed for that, and then a generation or two. I don’t see it happening, because so many don’t *want* to see it happen, for the USA to change. It smacks of… (cue scary music)… SOCIALISM!!!!! Boo, Hiss!

    The USA would no longer be the USA, though far to the right of the US at the time of the New Deal. Or even Eisenhower. Except in civil rights, the problem there is that the job is 3/4 finished, improvement in my lifetime has been incredible, but glacial in the last 20 years.

    How this was achieved is an epic story that all Americans should know and take pride in, on this day and every other.

    That we do not is a national shame.

    • Now, now—you changed definitions there mid-stream. “Fair” wages is what a job is worth and the labor is worth on the market, not what some activist thinks it should be worth. Pre-labor movement, wages were not fair, because there was no market operating at all for labor. You got paid what the boss decided. There’s no comparison between today’s wages and what was inflicted on workers then. “Fair” is now defined by advocates as “a living wage,” but if your skills don’t translate into a service or product that is worth what a living wage costs, it isn’t unfair to you not to get it; it’s unfair to consumers and employers to make them pay it.

      Baseball is a nice analogy and microcosm of the difference between pre-labor/strikes/laws/worker protection and post-; players were quite literally exploited to line the pockets of employers. They had skills that were immensely rare and valuable.

      Right: the US is built on a philosophy that it is ultimately up to you to succeed or fail, and that’s called incentive and personal responsibility. That drives progress and achievement, and leaves those who can’t compete in a ditch. It’s only unfair in the sense that life is unfair.

      I don’t see how anyone can make a non-risible argument that “mismanagement” has caused that many fatalities, or any fatalities, since even now, nobody knows what “mismanagement” would be, and especially after the CDC’s mindblowing announcement that only 10% of the fatalities could be attributed to the virus alone. So I presume that, say, in my father’s case, as he died of old age, cancer, heart issues and more (according to his doctor), if he had also been diagnosed with the Wuhan virus, that’s what the official cause of death would have been. The death totals here are likely inflated, not underestimated.

      I read one article yesterday by an epidemiologist who claimed either having no lockdown at all or a complete one would have been defensible and more effective that the hybrid response we had. That’s classic scholarly nonsense: both of these responses were politically impossible, because, as you say, the US is the US, and once the panic was seeded by universities (who cancelled classes on their own) the die was cast.

  6. From ANDREW WAKELING:

    “Thanks Jack. A bit of a surprise. Collective rights, obligations and institutions like unions are fundamental for a decent society. In Australia we call it mateship. In the US and the UK collectivism through the 20th century seems to have been demonised, I suppose in part as a reaction to dreadful corruption. Hopefully in the 21st a way back can be found. As per Orwell’s Animal Farm, we need a better deal for Boxer.”

    • (WordPress froze out Andrew for some reason. I’m relaying his comment. If this happens to you, I’ll do the same; just email me as Andrew did. I apologize to Mr. Wakeling, whose contributions here are much valued.)

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