Don’t Forget the Meaning of Labor Day


In 1877 workers for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad shut down the rails to protest multiple pay cuts and exploitative working conditions. Their anger spread throughout the nation, as far away as San Francisco. The militias of ten states were called in to break the strike, but failed. The striking workers brought commerce in the United States to a standstill until President Hayes sent federal troops to break the uprising. This was the first general strike in U.S. history and the most serious civil conflict since the Civil War. Though the strikers ultimately lost, the power of solidarity, the use of what I call Foundational Power, the power to accomplish material outcomes, for a common cause resonated throughout the country. Without workers driving the engines of industry, productivity stops, capital stops, nothing runs. A system driven by exploitation can be ground to a halt by the simple refusal to cooperate on the part of the workers.

With that in mind, it became the mission of the corporate class and their cronies in the state and federal government to exert as much power as was necessary to ensure that workers would never again threaten sacred commerce despite their exploitation. In the 1880’s the government used the disastrous riot at Haymarket Square in Chicago to shut down the rising radical movements. These movements, the anarchists, socialists, syndicalists and communists emerged from exploitation of early industrial capitalism, growing stronger with the anger and discontent of the workers. Instead of negotiating a just exchange of labor for remuneration, the Robber Barons drafted the power of the state to crush free expression, press and assembly for the working class.

This played out in the coal mines of West Virginia where years of conflict culminated in the bloody Battle of Blair Mountain when over a million rounds of ammunition, tear gas and pipe bombs were used by state militias and federal troops against thirteen thousand angry minors. It played out in Colorado when eighteen coal minors, including eleven women and children were killed in Ludlow, machine gunned and burned to death in their tent cities while they fought for unionization, fair wages and safer working conditions. It played out with national outrage over the unnecessary deaths of almost a hundred and fifty workers, mostly migrant women, in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1914.

In almost every case, the default position of the “peoples'” representatives in government was to serve the corporate interest and use violence, military and police state tactics against movements of the people. During this time heroes emerged to defend the working class, often facing physical intimidation, arrest and deportation for speaking out and acting out in the interests of fairness and justice. Eugene V. Debs imprisoned multiple times, ultimatly running for president from a jail cell in 1920; the elderly Mary Harris “Mother” Jones arrested in her 70’s while trying to help striking coal minors; “Big Bill” Haywood, Woody Guthrie, Jack London, Helen Keller. Many of these names are familiar to us, but rarely for their radical politics.

If you like the fact that you have Labor Day off, weekends, holidays, vacation time, time and a half, sick leave. If you prefer your children being in school rather than in the factories working to supplement the family’s meager income. If you believe that people should be able to stop working when they reach a certain age without being a burden to their families. If you appreciate the fact that being injured on the job will not result in penury due to workman’s comp laws and that there are regulations requiring safety features and a clean work environment to reduce the likelihood of injury or illness. If you support the idea that companies should not be able to dump their toxins in your drinking water, that they should pay a livable wage and provide benefits for their workers, then you appreciate the labor movement.

It’s interesting. When Veterans Day comes along we make it a point to remember the sacrifices of our soldiers on the battlefields on foreign lands, as well we should. On Labor Day, however, there is little effort to remind us of the sacrifices, the lives lost, in very real battlefields right here at home for the sake of improving everyone’s lives and to add a little more justice to the marketplace.

Forgetting the hard fought and hard won concessions from the corporate class comes at a great cost. There are those among us who would love to roll back the progress of the early 20th century and of the New Deal, who would turn the clock back to the age of the Robber Barons and unlimited exploitation of working people. Only this time there will be no frontier and cheap land to serve as a pressure valve against civil outrage. Over the last thirty years this group has made great gains. For more than a quarter of all working Americans things like weekends, vacation time, holidays and overtime do not exist. A growing number of Americans expect to never retire, or to work well into their Golden Years as pensions dissipate or are replaced by less secure investment plans. More and more Americans are taking work home in the computer age version of piece work, but in this case, often uncompensated. Workplace security is a thing of the past. And, despite the fact that American workers are more productive than ever before, wages remain stagnant with almost all of the gains of increased production going to the corporate class.

So this Labor Day, let’s remember those who put their bodies on the line, sacrificing their well-being, their freedom and even their lives to improve the plight of workers in a conflict that last over a hundred years. Let’s also remember that those benefits that were hard won are relatively easy to lose in this new globalized economy where corporations can be run from a laptop anywhere in the world. It is time for us to take up the mantle of the labor movement. Today unions are less powerful than they have been in about a hundred years. If you are a worker, and you can join a union, do so. Don’t fall for the “right to work” mentality in which you are legally allowed to benefit from union negotiated contracts without actually paying your dues. That’s free loading on the labor movement. Pay your dues and you will see your benefits increase. If your shop does not have a union, start one. With the advent of new technologies the very definition of a union is changing. You do not need a union card to act in solidarity with your fellow workers. All you need is a communication network and the willingness to stand together for labor justice.

Finally, when you see workers fighting to improve their lives, fighting for better wages or a healthier work place, support them. Support them even if doing so is inconvenient to you. You really don’t need that burger and fries so badly that you simply must cross a picket line to get it. Those people holding the signs are not just fighting for themselves. They are fighting for you, for their fate is yours but for separation of time.

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