How many of us, when we hear “Labor Day”, immediately expect to hear the word “sale” or “special”? We also associate Labor Day with the end of summer fun, the return to school, and the start of football season. Maybe you are among the lucky ones and can actually enjoy the day off with a picnic. Not so much if you are working in retail, and your store is having Labor Day sales.
Labor Day is a federal holiday established in 1884, and “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”, according to the US Labor Dept.
The first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City in 1892 with a large parade of union workers marching to a park. Nearly 25,000 people enjoyed the festivities with picnics, speeches, and of course, lots of beer.
Much of the history of the union labor movement was not fun and games, but bloody and horrific. Worker conditions were dangerous, and the pay was too low to live on. Child labor was the norm. The only way for work conditions to improve was for workers to organize, unite, and attempt to negotiate better pay and conditions with employers. Often negotiations would fail, and workers were left with no other alternative than to go on strike. The strikers would try to prevent the business from operating by forming picket lines to block entrances.
Employers did everything they could to stop unions from forming and used any means necessary. Union busting tactics included infiltrating union organizing effort with spies, hiring “scab” workers to replace strikers, and violently attacking the picket lines. If that didn’t work, the police and national guard would be called out to end the strike. The conflicts became bloody and sometimes resulted in deaths. Striking workers were arrested.
This era of terrible labor strife occurred in an age of severe wealth and income disparity. This was the Gilded Age and the Age of Robber Barons. While workers struggled to provide for their families, famous tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan made their fortunes.
The Homestead Steel Strike
The 1892 strike at Homestead Steel Works is an example of union-busting. The steelworks, located outside of Pittsburgh, was owned by multi-millionaire Andrew Carnegie. Homestead Steel was unionized and its workers made higher wages than other steel plants owned by Carnegie. Although Homestead Steal was profitable, Carnegie was upset the Homestead plant was unionized. So he set about busting the union.
Carnegie drastically cut wages and forced the union to strike. He then hired scab workers to replace the strikers. When the strikers attempted to block the scabs, Carnegie brought in Pinkerton guards. Violence and bloodshed claimed the lives of 7 workers and 3 Pinkerton guards. The national guard came and ended the strike. Carnegie succeeded in breaking the union. This sad saga is told in a song, “Father was killed by a Pinkerton Man”.
We enjoy many benefits as a result of the labor struggles from more than 120 years ago. Among labor’s accomplishments are abolish child labor; 40 hour work week and the weekend; worker safety; retirement and health insurance benefits.
Despite these benefits enjoyed by society, corporate interests have sought to regain control and undermine labor unions. States passed right-to-work laws that allowed workers to enjoy the benefits of union negotiations without having to join the union and pay dues. Companies closed unionized factories in heavily unionized states and moved factories to non-unionized states. Then manufacturing moved out of the US to poor third-world countries which have much lower wages and worker-protection and environmental regulations.
Now, the labor union movement is also facing new 21st Century challenges. Technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence are disrupting entire industries and eliminating many jobs. A Democratic presidential candidate predicts that one-third of US workers will lose their jobs because of technology. He is campaigning on this issue of technology and job displacement.
More than 100 years ago, The corporate, monied interests didn’t care about the suffering of the people. Workers sought for economic and social justice. By striking and demonstrating, they made the workplace — factory, mine, and sweatshop — the focal point of their fight.
Today, labor’s voice is not as loud as it had been in the past. But the social and economic justice issues are as important as ever. The early labor union movement pioneers have shown us that we can overcome corporate greed. This Labor Day, let us remember those brave union workers who sacrificed their lives so that today we can have a better life. And let us prepare ourselves for the struggles ahead.