Monday, September 05, 2011

Labor Day--Remembering Why

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Labor day in all our memories has been about parades, picnics, backyard bbq, having a day off work, family vacations, fireworks, back to school sales, 3 day weekends, paid holiday....

Sometimes lost in all of that is the reason why Labor Day became a national holiday.

Sure most of us know it is supposed to be about honoring the workers without whom the economy would grind to a halt.

But did you know Congress created this national holiday to honor workers as an appeasement for labor unions in the late 1890s immediately after President Grover Cleveland had used US Marshals and US military to shut down a strike by the railroad workers sparking further violence across the country.

The Pullman Strike had begun when the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman Illinois cut wages without also lowering rent and prices in the company town and store.  Imagine if your current employer could force you to live    on company property and buy your necessities from the company store controlling both the amount of your wages and the cost of living, and not allow you to quit while owing the company money... 

And then imagine further that when you went on strike in protest your employer had the power to manipulate the law and hold the authorities at their beck and call from the local police and judges to the president to force you back to work on pain of death or prison...

What we seem to have forgotten in this day in which it is so common to blame the unions for what's wrong with the economy and name union breaking legislation as 'right to work' that what the 'right to work' meant before the labor movement in the 19th century was:

16 hour days
6 or 7 day weeks
children worked as hard and as long as adults
unsafe working conditions in which death and severe injury was commonplace
no worker compensation for lost time due to injury
no unemployment insurance against layoffs
no pensions
no health benefits
no vacation days
no sick days (literally no days off for sickness as missing work meant loosing the job)
no paid sick days
no paid holidays
no protection against unfair firing
no protection against sexual harassment
no ability to bargain for better wages
no minimum wage (which was initially supposed to insure a full time job paid enough to live on but no longer does if it ever did)

Every single one of these hard won rights has been under fire in recent years and it is high time we sit up and take notice.  I'm sure most of those flinging around the phrase 'right to work' do not mean the 'right to be slaves'.

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