Labor. Like most of the good words, this one comes from Latin, a language as dead as Jon Snow, and it adorns a celebration which similarly has seen better days. We’ll be commemorating the 121st official Labor Day Monday, but it could be more accurately observed as Last Barbecue of Summer Day, Red Tag Clearance on Remaining Summer Inventory Day or even Driving Back from A Long Beach Weekend Day.
Back when they were still plentiful in the continental United States, workers would take off on the first Monday in September to participate in parades, speeches and festivities honoring the achievements of those, as early labor organizer Peter McGuire put it, “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
There’s not so much of the delving and the carving nowadays, but we still benefit from the hard-won accomplishments of long-ago laborers: the minimum wage, the eight-hour day and safe workplaces all resulted from the courage of workers who risked their lives and livelihoods to demand a fair shake from employers.
It is easy to romanticize the labor movement, but impossible to romanticize the actual backbreaking labor that spawned it. In our comfortable circumstances, it is difficult to imagine what working conditions must have been like back in 1884, when the Federation of Organized Trades resolved that eight hours should constitute a legal day’s work and that workers should go on strike at companies that refused to comply. At that time, long hours and low pay were the norm, and there was no minimum age for working, let alone a minimum wage. America’s factories produced goods that improved the living standard of the world, but the living standards of the people who did the producing were often lamentable.
Good old Birmingham was where some of those people lived, back when our town passed itself off to the world as “The Pittsburgh of the South.” All the ingredients to make iron and steel were located here, but someone had to delve and carve them from the earth. Economically speaking, miners were some of the most important people in our revenue base, yet they were often treated as chattel by those who owned the mines.
What is now called welfare capitalism was a miner’s life in many communities surrounding Birmingham in the early 20th century. In a common practice remarkably free of government supervision, a corporation would establish a town around producing mines, hire people to work the mines who would live in company housing, in lieu of cash give the workers scrip redeemable at company-owned stores and at the first of each month deduct rent, utilities, medical and sundry from the meager salary the miners had earned.
And the owners had the nerve to call workers who agitated for change “communists.”
Speaking of which, you might remember that back in the heyday of the hammer and sickle, the Soviet Union used to shut down yearly on the first of May to celebrate the workers’ revolution. Far from being one of Lenin or Stalin’s innovations, May Day was based on a good old American custom, the assembly to petition for redress of grievances.
The Federation of Organized Trades resolution mentioned above, the one about the eight-hour day, was proposed to go into effect May 1, 1886, at which time some 200,000 U.S. workers of all kinds were on strike.
In Chicago, more than 50,000 turned out for a May Day parade and speeches by union firebrands. Due to a heavy police presence, there were no incidents, but two days later at a large labor rally involving striking lumber workers, jittery cops fired into the crowd and killed two men. At a May 4th rally in Haymarket Square called to peaceably protest police violence, a bomb went off, killing a policeman. Ensuing violence killed police and civilians alike.
Haymarket Square was used subsequently as an excuse to bust labor unions and jail organizers as anarchists. (Or worse: the state of Illinois ultimately hanged eight labor activists for complicity in the bombing, despite having no evidence to that effect.) The struggle to organize labor almost turned into a war. Corporations unwilling to give up profits used any means necessary to keep workers from uniting. Here in Alabama, the National Guard and the militia were occasionally called out around Mulga and Virginia City to quell union insurrections. Sometimes convicts were leased from the state or the county to replace striking miners.
It is too long a tale for this tiny space, but the ending is memorable. Unions ultimately won the battle to be paid well and treated fairly, then lost their workplaces as corporations relocated their operations to nations less scrupulous about such matters.
Anti-union politicians have had considerable success in shrinking the labor movement nationwide, but those keeping the carbide lamp of hope burning for collective bargaining finally got some good news last week. The National Labor Relations Board ruled that companies can be held legally responsible for the actions of subcontractors they hire and can even be required to negotiate with labor unions as “joint employers” of workers hired by the subcontractors.
Since the ruling covers franchisers like McDonald’s and companies such as Amazon or Wal-Mart reliant on temp agency hires, this could mean steady work for union organizers, even in right-to-work states such as Alabama, where we’ve lost so many jobs in the last 30 years, we probably should be observing We Could Use Some More Labor Day.
Compare and contrast. In 1917, 84 unions in Birmingham celebrated Labor Day with a grand parade downtown and a giant barbecue at East Lake featuring athletic contests, music and speeches. “The city generally will observe the day,” The Birmingham News reported. “Stores in many instances will give full holiday or half holiday.”
In 2015, lots of folks will be spending the holiday at the stores. I guess in a roundabout way Peter McGuire might be proud.