19th Century Labor Day Blues

Labor day is about as much a celebration of the American worker as Thanksgiving is a tribute to Native Americans. I’m sure American Indians rejoice in the irony of a nation celebrating their Wampanoag forefathers’ benevolence by gorging our honky asses on Turducken and pretending we never repaid their kindness with the gift of genocide. Likewise, I’m sure that the 7-11 cashier who has to work the graveyard shift tonight while getting shorted by her boss for time and a half because she’s not a “full-time employee” at 32.5 hours a week is thrilled that today is a national holiday in honor of working folks like herself. Her gratitude surely flows from her as smoothly as the cherry cola slurpee machine she has to clean in half an hour. Blessedly, we are still resting through halftime of the convention madness that began last week with the GOP and ends this Thursday with Barack & friends, so we have a breather from the sycophantic gibberish of partisan groupthink. But, come this time tomorrow, the onslaught of hollow pandering will begin again and it is with this in mind that I think it prudent to look back how the origins of Labor Day aren’t really worth celebrating.

In 1894, America was in the midst of what was then the largest depression in its history. The railroad industry had overextended itself and the flood of new rail that was being laid down began to far exceed the amount of cash to pay for it (sound familiar?). When the railroad bubble burst, there was a huge run on banks and the market, along with people’s savings, began to shrivel. At the same time, it was also an election year, with Grover Cleveland reaching the middle of his 2nd term in office and the stage set for the House of Representatives to realign from the Democrats to the GOP. At the height of what was known as the The Panic of 1893, unemployment was as high as 17-19% and industry was struggling. This was particularly true for the railroad industry and their masses of underpaid, overworked employees. One business that felt the squeeze was the Pullman company, who was the leading manufacturer of railroad sleeping cars in America and whose name is still synonymous with railroad sleepers today1. After the crash, Pullman laid off hundreds of workers and cut the wages of many of those who remained. To make matters worse, Pullman had built their company like some sort of utopian industrialist paradise in the Illinois countryside, so they had an entire town of disgruntled workers on their hands who had a common enemy in company founder George Pullman. That a workers strike soon followed is about as predictable as the plot to an M Night Shyamalan movie.

A political cartoon on “the condition of the laboring man at Pullman”

A young Eugene V. Debs led his American Railway Union in a national boycott of all trains carrying Pullman cars and before long the national railway system was a shambles. As non-union railway workers joined in and riots began to pop up all over the country, the railroad kings and President Cleveland began to get worried and did what had to be done. Namely, they busted some heads. President Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and sent out 12,000 US troops to disperse the rabble-rousers in whatever way they saw fit. Only two men were killed during the strike-busting process, but the damage to labor was certainly done. Debs was sent to prison for his actions, the American Railway Union was forced to disband, and all Pullman employees had to sign documents stating that they would never unionize themselves in the future. All’s well that ends well, right? For the railroad tycoons, maybe, but for Grover Cleveland and his Democratic counterparts in congress, public sentiment was settling itself in the opposition’s corner.

In a desperate grab for votes in the 1894 election, President Cleveland and congress signed legislation making Labor Day an official national holiday just 6 days after the end of the Pullman strikes. Needless to say, Cleveland’s ploy didn’t work and his Democratic party lost a remarkable 125 seats in the House that November. As for the holiday itself, any real affiliation with organized labor or the American worker has vanished. Today, Labor Day is really just a Monday off signaling the end of Summer and the start of football season. It lets us know when it’s inappropriate to wear white and provides us with another excuse to shoot off fireworks and barbeque. Labor Day doesn’t have the same political undertones that May Day celebrations across the world do and it accurately symbolizes the American apathy towards labor. Honestly, if you suggested switching out Labor Day with the day after Super Bowl Sunday as a national holiday, I don’t think you’d get much push back.

Hopefully, you’ll forgive me for the impromptu history lesson as it has frustrating relevance to our current political climate. Forget the fact that both situations involved financial crises that resulted from rampant overspeculation and shaky investment practices from the private sector. What is more important than the fact that they happened is that it is the stated goal of the Republican Party to bring America back to the state of financial deregulation that makes these events a regularity occurrence. If you look back at the history of financial collapse, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the loosening the markets to such a great degree leads to short term gain and long term pain. Calvin Coolidge’s eight years of doing less than any president in American history to curb speculation and shady business practices led to Hoovervilles and The Great Depression. Ronnie Reagan’s orgy of deregulation led to the Greed is Good eighties, followed by Black Friday and the single worst day in the history of the US economy. Bill Clinton & George W. Bush created a market where anyone with credit card and a pulse could get a home loan and major banks thought it was a good idea to base their investment strategies on the idea that the housing market will never stop growing and, voila, we have a massive recession and unemployment hovering around 8%.

President Obama said in a speech this week that the Republican Party’s ideas were from the last century, but I think the POTUS missed the mark by 100 years or so. The GOP wants to take us back to the 19th century when unions could be busted up with impunity (see: Scott Walker) and robber barons stood astride the nation beating the ever-loving hell out of any small business or worker with the gall to question their monopolistic excellence. Glass-Steagall is a distant memory and the Dodd-Frank bill is about as effective as an Kenyan distance runner in a sumo tournament. Is it any wonder that my generation is the first in American history expected to be worse off than their parents? We’ve put the car in reverse and we’re consistently shocked when we press down on the gas and lurch backwards.


1Thanks to PBS Newshour for providing the background information the Pullman conflict: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/business/july-dec01/labor_day_9-2.html

Categories: Social Justice, US Politics

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