In 1894, America was in the midst of what was then the largest depression in its young history. Amidst all of the Sturm und Drang of the Second Industrial Revolution, the railroad industry had overextended itself and a flood of new rail was being laid down in quantities that far exceeded the amount of cash they had pay for it. When the railroad bubble burst, there was a huge run on banks and the market, along with people’s savings, began to shrivel. Unemployment rates were climbing as high as 17-19% and industry was struggling. However, as industry limped along, the labor movement began to pick up steam. 1894 saw the first organized march on Washington with Coxey’s Army of unemployed protestors, as well asmajor strikes by bituminous coal miners all across the country, tailors in New York, and—most significantly—the striking of thousands of railroad workers employed by the Pullman Company, which had laid off hundreds of workers and cut the wages of many of those who remained in response to the crash.
A young Eugene V. Debs joined with the strikers and led his American Railway Union in a national boycott of all trains carrying Pullman cars and before long the national railway system west of Chicago was a shambles. As non-union railway workers joined in and riots began to pop up all over the country, the Pullman Company and local, state and federal government did what one would expect them to do and brought the proverbial hammer down on the striking workers. President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and promptly sent out 12,000 US Army troops and thousands of US Marshalls to disperse the rabble-rousers in whatever way they saw fit. By the time the strike had been squashed, 34 men had lost their lives, 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.
Just 6 days after the end of the Pullman strikes, President Cleveland and his Democratic colleagues in congress made a desperate grab for votes in the 1894 election by signing legislation that making Labor Day an official national holiday. Needless to say, Cleveland’s ploy didn’t work and his Democratic party lost a remarkable 125 seats in the House that November, but Labor Day remained. 120 years later, we still celebrate the holiday, but any substantive 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 barbecue. Labor Day doesn’t have the same political undertones that May Day celebrations across the world do and it accurately symbolizes the general American apathy towards labor.
While all of us still benefit mightily from the many sacrifices of the labor movement, only 11% of workers in the America actually belong to a union and just over half of us hold a favorable opinion of them. Somewhere over the past 60 years, conservative politicians and the business elite managed to convince much of our nation’s workforce that unions were somehow un-American and that—contrary to almost all factual evidence—it was their union bosses and not their economic and political counterparts that were responsible for rising deficits and the exodus of well-paying work; that private sector jobs were in some way more empirically substantive and beneficial than their public sector brethren.The fact that there has been a direct correlation between the weakening of labor unions and the widening of the wage and wealth gap in America is rarely mentioned and oft-ignored. Faith in collective bargaining and striking has been replaced by many Americans with a faith in the free market and the business community, a faith that is based not on experience and history, but on corporate propaganda and political posturing. In an effort to illustrate the frailty of that corporate faith—and in honor of Labor Day—I’d like to tell you a little story.
Two summers ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a small party of Virginians on tour of Kayford Mountain, an island of unmolested greenery in the midst of a sea of decapitated mountains in the West Virginian Appalachians. There were 4 people in their party, but most of the talking was done by an older gentleman named Jim who actually looked like George W. Bush’s well-spoken, eco-friendly doppelganger. Jim and the 3 other people who may or may not have been members of his family (I never asked), brought with them a meticulously packed lunch with them and insisted I join them for a picnic after the tour had ended. Over lunch, the topic naturally drifted towards environmental issues and Jim started telling us about the first job he got after graduating from the University of Virginia. I was expecting him to launch into a story about how he ran off to the rainforests of Costa Rica to do conservation work or some other Greenpeace-friendly endeavor. Suffice it to say, I did not get what I expected:
“I was a scab.” Jim told me. (1)
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I kid you not.” Jim said. “First job I got out of college was as a scab for a big energy company.”
“How in the hell did you end up doing that?” I asked.
“Well at the time they offered me the job I didn’t know I was being hired on as a scab.” he said. “Heck, I didn’t even really know what a scab was. Why would I? I was just a college kid fresh out of Charlottesville. No idea what the real world was going to be like. I was a philosophy major, so it wasn’t like employers were beating down my door. I don’t know what type of job I expected to get after I graduated, but I’m pretty sure that working at a power plant wasn’t too high on the list.”
“Did you know much about the job when you signed up?” I asked.
“No, I really didn’t know anything about what the job entailed. The guy who recruited me was really hush hush about the whole deal. All I knew was that I was working for this energy company and that I needed to show up at a certain spot at a certain time with 21 days worth of clothing and they’d be there to pick me up.” Jim told me.
“That was it.” he said. “In retrospect, I probably should’ve just quit right then when he told me to bring the 21 days worth of clothes and show up at some random spot for my first day of work. It was really sketchy, but I needed the job, so I went down to where they told me to go, when they told me to go, with a big bag of clothes and just waited.”
“So, what happened next?” I asked.
“Well, they showed up in this big gray van and told me to get in. So, I threw my clothes in the back and took a seat and the first thing I saw was that there were 4 other guys who were already in the van. All 4 of them were dressed head to toe in black and all 4 were silent for the entire ride.”
“For the entire ride?”
“The entire ride.” Jim said. “It was genuinely terrifying. I spent the whole time trying figure out what it was they were planning to do to me and all I could come with was that they were going haze me or some weird initiation ritual or something.”
“Did they end up doing anything?” I asked
“No, they didn’t do a thing. They just sat there in complete silence for 4 or 5 hours until we pulled into this parking lot in front of a Holiday Inn. As soon as we stopped, they opened the door and told me to get my stuff and get out. I thought we were going to all spend the night there or something as it was already dark out, but the van up and peeled off as soon as I got out.”
“It just left you there?”
“Yeah,” Jim said. “I had absolutely no idea what I was going on. I thought they had just stranded me in this random Holiday Inn parking lot, but less than a minute after the van sped away I see this big helicopter coming down towards me.”
“Yes, a helicopter. It was one of the ones with the glass domes like they had on M*A*S*H. Anyway, the helicopter lands right there in the parking lot and the pilot starts gesturing frantically for me to get in, so I did and we took off. The helicopter pilot was the first guy to really tell me what was going on with the wildcat strike and everything. He said the reason we were flying so late at night to the plant was because some of the strikers had shot at a helicopter earlier that month and they wanted to get me in under cover of darkness.” he told me. “It was absolutely terrifying. Had I known at the very beginning that this was what I was signing up for, there is no way I take that job, which I suppose is why they never told me about any of it until I was trapped in a helicopter 5,000 feet above the ground with no way out.”
“What happened next?” I asked.
“Well, I hate to disappoint, but we ended up making it to the plant without incident. I can’t speak to how much danger I was actually in at the time, but I think it was mainly just one of those things where the company’s taking every little precaution to make sure they don’t get sued for getting one of their workers killed. In reality, I had far more reason to be scared of what might happen to me when I was in the plant as opposed to when I was making my way to it.”
“Lord, that entire place was a death trap.” Jim said. “If you can think of a grisly and hideous way to exit this earth, I’m pretty sure you would’ve been able to find it at this plant. For 3 weeks straight I worked 18 hour days and I thought I was going to die the whole time. They had these big boilers there that were responsible for sending power to the rest of the factory and it was our job to shovel coal into them around the clock because if they shut down, the whole plant shut down. So each of us would take turns down there; we’d just spending hour after hour after hour chucking shovelfuls of coal into these burners to keep the boiler running and, I don’t know if you’ve ever been near an industrial-sized coal burner, but they are hot. I mean, like 187-degrees all the time hot. Every time I worked down there I thought my face was going to melt right off.”
“That sounds awful.”
“Yeah, and that wasn’t even the half of it. There were times when my foreman would actually send me underneath the boilers.”
“They would do what now?” I said in disbelief. “Underneath the boilers?”
“Yep, underneath them. They had these grates on the floor to deal with all drainage from the boilers and every so often they’d get clogged up with rocks and they’d need to get rid of them before they could start the thing running again. Unfortunately for me, the only way to get the drain unclogged was to climb down these rickety ladders made of rebar and remove the stuff by hand, which might sound easy until you remember that I’m roasting the whole time underneath a boiler that’s usually running at more than 1000°F. I’m telling you, I honestly thought I was going to die down there.”
“How long did you stay at the job”
“I was only there the 21 days I had to be there.” Jim said. “If I’d have had the chance to leave while I was there, I would’ve, but we were essentially trapped in the power plant the whole time we were working there. All of us slept together on these threadbare cots in an office somewhere in the plant and we could always tell when it was time to get up because, over the course of the night, the vibrations of the machinery in the plant would slowly shift all of us to one side of the room. We would go to sleep every night with our cots spaced evenly apart and we’d wake up every morning all huddled together against a wall or in a corner.”
“That sounds like hell.” I said.
“Well,” Jim told me, “I’ve never been to hell, so I can’t really say. But, if there’s anywhere else on God’s green earth that’s as miserable as that plant, I’ve never seen it.”
(1) For those who have never heard the term before, a “scab” is a non- union replacement worker who is hired by a corporation to break up striking workers.