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Honoring The Labor of All Workers

August 30, 2012

The first Monday of September is Labor Day, a Federal holiday in the United States since 1894.

Hastily signed into law by President Grover Cleveland, historians note that Cleveland was eager to appease the growing labor movement after the deaths of workers during the Pullman Strike.

Labor historians consider the Pullman Strike a critical event in the history of the movement for workers’ rights in this country. The Pullman Palace Car Company manufactured railroad cars and operated them on thousands of miles of rails at the height of the 19th century American railroad boom. The company’s car porters, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a powerful African-American political group well into the 20th century.

The Pullman Strike began in “Pullman” Illinois when nearly 4,000 employees started a wildcat strike in response to reductions in wages, which essentially brought life in nearby Chicago to a halt. The company  had cut wages citing the economic downturn of 1893, when demand and revenue declined. The workers were also protesting the high rents that the company charged workers to live in Pullman, their planned worker community. The workers, also protesting 16 – hour work days, attempted to meet with owner George Pullman who “loftily denied meeting them.”

Many Pullman workers were also members of the huge American Railway Union (ARU) led by the now famous Eugene V Debs. Debs encouraged the ARU to support the strike by launching a boycott with his union members refusing to run trains that contained Pullman cars. This action effectively shut down production in all Pullman factories resulting in a lockout of workers. When railway workers across the country joined the strike, 125,000 covering 29 railroads were involved in the nationwide action.

Unfortunately, peaceful rallies gave way to splinter actions that resulted in about 6,000 workers destroying property valued at $340,000 (nearly 9 million in todays’ dollars). Racial and political in-fighting within the unions also contributed to the mounting tensions. The strike was broken by the interventions of 12,000 U.S. troops and Marshals sent in by President Cleveland. Justifying the action, Cleveland claimed that the strike interfered with delivery of the U.S. Mail, which violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.

During the course of the strike, 13 workers were killed and 57 were injured. Fearing public backlash and looking to appease union leaders, President Cleveland rushed the legislation granting the holiday into law just six days after the end of the strike.

Wondering why the September date (legally the first Monday of every September) was selected and not the logical choice of International Workers Day on May 1st, celebrated by 80 other countries?

Worried that the nascent U.S. Communist and Anarchist movements were growing, Cleveland decided it was too risky to appear to ally the labor movement to their activist brethren around the world by choosing May 1st.

 Labor Day Today – The Plight of U.S. Workers

Sadly, not too many Americans will remember the courageous actions of many in the Pullman Strike, and other workers that have died fighting for the eight-hour workday (remember that?) and humane conditions in nearly every industry.

Labor Day in the U.S. has mostly become just another three-day holiday weekend, marking the end of the summer and beginning of the school year with barbeques, picnics and holiday sales.

Whether you agree or not with labor unions or the right to collective bargaining, few would disagree that millions of workers – blue and white collar – have greatly benefited from the sacrifice of workers willing to risk their livelihood and in some cases, their lives, for the cause. Historically, few companies have provided safe and decent conditions, fair wages and benefits simply through their largesse. Certainly worker expectations of decent and just treatment have evolved throughout the 20th century, especially among white-collar employees, but far too many workers still struggle for better standards.

While workers at the top of the corporate ladder are raking it in, with an average pay and benefits raise of 16% in 2011 – the increase for the average worker was just 3%.  In 2011, the average CEO pay was 12.9 million dollars, 380 times that of the average mean salary of $45.230 for all occupations.

Although many corporations are complaining  about over-regulation and  “unfriendly” business environments, Business Insider reports that corporate profits have just reached an all time high. One reason is that companies are simply not employing as many people and the statistics bear out that fewer Americans are working now than in the last three decades.

The numbers are indeed grim for American workers and the Middle Class in general. Citing a new Pew Research Study, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the middle class is quickly becoming an endangered species. “Not only has the middle class “endured a lost decade for economic well-being,” it has shrunk significantly, from 61 percent of the adult population in 1971 to 51 percent in 2011, and continues to “fall backward in income and wealth, and shed some – by no means all – of its characteristic faith in the future.”

As always, left behind, the poor got a lot poorer: a 45% plunge in median wealth from $18,000 to $10,000.  In this economy, as even the “working poor” fall more deeply into poverty, the future for the average American worker seems dangerously in peril.

What’s Next?

If I brought your holiday plans down with my sober report, I apologize.  Often the truth hurts.  The future of the American worker will very much depend on our honest assessment and analysis of the facts as we consider future actions.  It will also depend on government and organizational policies that are fair and honest. To many of us this seems like a pipe dream.

 I hope not.

This Labor Day, I hope you’ll think a little more about the amazing resiliency and challenges of workers, whether they clean your hotel room, process your expense report or educate your children. Every one of them deserves our respect and equitable treatment from their employers. 

If you’d like to read more about workers’ rights, here are some past articles you may like:

Women (and Men) The Dignity of Work

What Does Your Work Mean to You?

Women are Leading, But Where’s The Power?

What Rights Should ALL Workers Have? Part 1

What Rights Should All Workers Have? Part 2

Thanks for reading, subscribing, commenting, sharing, liking and tweeting this blog. I really appreciate it.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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