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Reflections on Labor Day
Author: Will in Chicago    Date: 09/01/2014 15:08:47

Labor Day is here again. A day that is meant to honor workers often becomes a day to celebrate the end of summer. So, I thought it would be wise to take a look at the state of Labor in the U.S. as well as how we got here.

Let's start by looking at the past that many of our conservatives idolize and idealize. Many conservatives want a roll back on labor regulations and other regulations, misintepreting that Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market will cure all ills. Labor history shows what happens when there are poor or non-existent regulations. As a case in point, this is what happened with the Pullman Railroad strike in 1894.

In 1894, Chicago was the Midwest’s gateway to the rest of the United States. Twenty-four different railroad lines centered or terminated in Chicago, covering the nation in over forty thousand miles of rail. Farmers, merchants, craftsmen and factories hoping to bring their goods to the rest of the nation — and potentially, to the rest of the world — had to first bring those goods to Chicago to begin their journey down one of the city’s many rail lines. Without Chicago’s railroads, much of the country lost its access to the nation’s commerce and was essentially plunged back into a pre-industrial economy.
On May 11, 1894, a strike began just outside of Chicago in a company town run by one of the wealthiest Americans who has ever lived. By the strike’s bloody end, up to a quarter of a million workers joined together in solidarity with the strikers. Two federal judges, working in close collusion with federal officials who were themselves very much in league with Chicago’s railroad executives, would place the full power of the federal judiciary on the side of union-busters. President Grover Cleveland, acting on the advice of the railroad attorney he placed at the head of the Justice Department, would eventually send federal troops to Chicago. At the height of the conflict, Harper’s Magazine claimed that the nation was “fighting for its own existence just as truly as in suppressing the great rebellion” of the Confederacy.
And all of this happened because of two decisions made by just one man, George Mortimer Pullman, founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company. The first was the decision of Pullman and his company to cut its payrolls by nearly 40 percent, even as he increased the stock dividends his company paid to himself and its other shareholders. The second was Pullman’s utter refusal to deal with the union that represented his workers. In an America with no modern labor laws requiring management to come to the bargaining table with their workers, Pullman’s workers had no option other than a strike. And that strike would eventually escalate into a conflict that brought Chicago — and the nation’s entire economy — to its knees.


There were many more labor struggles to come. One incident that is often not mentioned is the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia.

The Battle of Blair Mountain took place between August 30 and September 4, 1921. Spruce Fork Ridge formed a natural dividing line between union and non-union territories. On August 30, the miners began their assault on Blair Mountain. Defensive positions blocked the miners along on the upper slopes of the ridge, with particular concentrations at the gaps: Mill Creek, Crooked Creek, Beech Creek and Blair Mountain. Here the defensive force dug trenches, felled trees, blocked roads, built breastworks and placed machine guns. Most of the hostilities between the two groups occurred along the fifteen-mile ridgeline, reflecting the miners' use of natural pathways up and over the ridge to breach Chafin's line.

During the battle, private planes organized by the defensive militia dropped as many as ten homemade bleach and shrapnel bombs at Jeffrey, Blair, and near the miners' headquarters on Hewitt Creek. In Charleston, eleven Army Air Corps pilots arrived, led by Billy Mitchell, a pioneer in aerial bombardment who was eager to experiment with the strategy. While troops were used in labor disputes throughout the nation during this era, West Virginia alone bears the distinction of having been the focus - and potential target - of military aircraft. Fortunately, the Army did not allow Mitchell to bomb the miners; the military planes performed reconnaissance flights.
The end of the battle began with the arrival of federal troops on September 3. Six hundred miners, many of whom were veterans of World War I, formally surrendered rather than fight the soldiers. Far from considering the Army as an enemy, the miners considered the soldiers to be brothers and refused to fire on them. In the end, despite the valiant charges of a few miners and close-range gunfight at Blair Mountain itself, there was little face-to-face combat. Visibility was so limited by the thick, late summer underbrush that few combatants actually saw the enemy. Lon Savage, who wrote the most authoritative account of the battle, sets the number of documented deaths at sixteen--all but four from the miners' army. But the defeat heavily damaged the UMWA, which lost members and territory in the wake of the battle.


Fortunately, the labor movement persevered and there was progress. One thing that many of us take for granted is the 40 hour work week.
Eight-hour days became rallying cries in the latter half of the 19th century, as workers in the building trades and similar industries marched together for better conditions. The Ford Motor Company advanced the idea in 1914, when it scaled back from a 48-hour to a 40-hour workweek after founder Henry Ford believed that too many hours were bad for workers’ productivity.

The formation of unions helped to strengthen the idea of working five days a week as well. In 1937, auto plant workers staged a sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, to protest bleak conditions at General Motors that included no bathroom breaks, no benefits or sick pay and no safety standards.

The negotiations between GM and the United Auto Workers ultimately improved working conditions. The federal government would show its support when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, a key part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Many historians credit Roosevelt’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, for championing the cause. Perkins was in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in 1911 on the day of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Almost 150 garment workers, mostly women and immigrants, were trapped and killed when the building caught fire. The exits had been blocked — a common practice at the time.


In recent decades, the labor movement has weakened. Many of our industrial jobs have been sent to other countries as the U.S. adopted the policy of free trade rather than supporting the tariff system created by Alexander Hamilton and endorsed by presidents as ideologically diverse as Hamilton's rival Thomas Jefferson and Calvin Coolidge.

However, there is a new labor movement rising and efforts to address income inequality that is now as bad as that of the 1920s.


Service-sector jobs are the heartbeat of our economy and our communities, from the folks who care for the elderly and our children, to those who cook and serve our food, to those who clean and secure our offices. Moving our economy forward must include making service jobs into good jobs with wages that you can raise a family on.

That’s why this Labor Day, the American people are sparking a new movement, joining together for an economy and democracy that works for everyone.

Fast-food workers have joined together to fight for $15 an hour. They have been joined by home care workers who are calling for $15 an hour for all caregivers. Just last week 27,000 Minnesota home care workers joined together in union, determined to raise wages and fight for quality home care for our seniors.

Working people in Seattle fought for and won a $15 minimum wage for 100,000 people, and other cities are poised to do the same. Across our nation adjunct professors, airport workers, security officers, hospital workers, Walmart workers and other service-sector workers are standing up and sticking together.

All told, 6.7 million workers have achieved better pay since fast-food workers began striking less than two years ago, either through states or cities moving to raise minimum wages or through collective bargaining. These brave workers are building the momentum to raise wages and get our economy roaring again.


States are also taking action to fight unfair labor practices, such as wage theft.

In the absence of aggressive federal action, some states and local governments have begun to tackle the issue on their own. They say employers who don't pay overtime or minimum wage are unlikely to pay into state workers' compensation or unemployment insurance funds - bilking taxpayers even as they're cheating workers.

Workers rights centers say wage theft has become the No. 1 complaint they've heard in recent months.

In Chicago, Working Hands Legal Clinic, which is helping Gutierrez, received 161 complaints of wage theft from January through June 2008. That jumped by more than 60 percent to 252 complaints during the same period this year.

The Los Angeles-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network says at least 50 percent of day laborers - there are 120,000 on a given day in the U.S. - experience some form of wage theft.


There are challenges to address. One of them is global climate change,as labor productivity drops sharply as temperatures rise.

We need to address the issues of income inequality and unfairness to workers. Let us remember that many people - not just politicians and captains of industry -- built this nation. It is up to all of us to build America into the nation it should be, this Labor Day and every day.

Bonus Clicks: The Nation has a list of the top 10 Labor Day Songs.

The Progressive has a list of the top 10 working class hero movies.





4 comments (Latest Comment: 09/01/2014 17:30:33 by Will in Chicago)
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