In the U.S., Labor Day comes and goes almost without comment in traditional media about what it actually means. In fact, most people in this country grow up never actually learning the history of why we celebrate Labor Day in the first place. This means we go conveniently un-reminded of the sacrifices made by countless people in this country at the turn of last century, as well as around the industrialized world, to get to the living standards we (still) enjoy to this day. For those of you who would like a history lesson, we’re happy to provide one here so we can be conscious as to how we got to where we are today, as well as vehemently fight against the forces that would seek to return us to where we never want to return.
Before the Industrial Revolution, most people worked as artisans or in agrarian capacities (aka farming). There weren’t the kinds of social systems we have today to mitigate mass suffering, so people had to fight for what they could earn in order to survive. When the Industrial Revolution came about, it signaled an evolutionary shift in the human species. Products could now be produced en masse and for cheaper than ever before. Of course, labor was needed in all the new factories springing up in nations where already wealthy individuals had easier access to capital to finance new ventures. Since these new factories were mostly in urban centers and because the great unwashed masses of poor and undereducated needed work, cities began to swell in size and competition for work was fierce. In addition, there were almost no restrictions on how workers were treated, or how much a fair wage for work should be in exceedingly harsh conditions. Predictably, the wealthy industrialists leveraged these conditions to their strength for maximum profitability, which meant that people who worked in factories often suffered 7-day work weeks at 12-hours per day, in unsafe conditions, without a minimum wage to provide a survivable lifestyle for the hard work that kept them poor, while making the industrialists rich. Because of these low wages, families often had to send their children, some as young as five years old, to work in factories with unsafe conditions. To top it all off, at this time there was no recourse for employees who were injured on the job, or unfairly harassed or discriminated against. These conditions effectively ensured that countless people lived in squalor, while the industrialists enjoyed the benefits of the hard work and sacrifice of others. Since this was the de facto work environment, people accepted their fate. Anyone who rocked the boat would find themselves harassed back into form, or replaced altogether.
At some point in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, working conditions became so intolerable that labor unions began to form to create a more decent work standard. When unions first began to organize strikes and rallies to protest poor working conditions and pay, they were often mercilessly suppressed. How? The wealth of the industrialists bought a lot of power in the U.S. federal government, which ensured that no new laws to support workers rights would form without a fight. At some point, the unstoppable movement ensured violent suppression to maintain the status quo. The Haymarket Riot, the Ludlow massacre, the Homestead Strike, the Pullman Strike, and the Colorado Labor Wars of 1903 are all examples of the labor movement being suppressed by threatening and violent means. In fact, the U.S. government would often send in the U.S. Army, or the National Guard to put down strikes, often times with violence and killing. Industrialists would also create militias to suppress those demanding fair pay, working conditions etc. The Coal and Iron Police were one of many examples of this.
Of course, due to the demand to put down organized labor, the supply became available from private sources. Examples of these individuals include, Jack Whitebread (“King of the Strike Breakers”), who deployed a private thugs during strikes of steelworkers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Birmingham, Alabama. James Farley and the Bergoff Brothers were other “service providers” to name only a few.
Still, all of the above did not deter the labor movement. As entire communities began to strike (which at times was 1000’s of people), strikers would pool their resources by sharing food, clothing or anything else the collective needed to ensure better wages and working conditions. In fact, socialist tendencies were born here, and socialism itself become a significant political relevant force, much to the chagrin of the ruling elite of the country.
At some point, the massacres and unrest became too much for the nation to bear and organized labor was able to gain massive concessions from the industrialists and their friends in government. The 40-hour work week was born, Saturday and Sunday became the “weekend” and child labor became illegal. These luxuries we enjoy today are due to the incredible sacrifices and determination made by fellow humans demanding simple fairness and equal distribution of wealth stemming from the Industrial Era.
All of the above is important to realize because the struggle continues. Neoliberalism has taken on a more virulent form, socialism is all the time incorrectly associated with communism in the mass media, union membership is at its lowest in decades through union busting initiatives begun by Ronald Reagan and sustained by both democrat and republican administations alike, wages aren’t keeping place with inflation, more and more people live in poverty and the wealthiest 1% controls more than 50% of the world’s wealth. The struggle for worker’s rights is still alive and well, and remembering the sacrifices made by generations past should serve as a potent reminder for where we never want to go again.
For those of you who would like a visual history of the labor movement in the U.S., feel free to watch the following documentary: