If you appreciate 40-hour work weeks, safe working conditions, higher wages, weekends, and a day off today—thank the labor movement. #LaborDay
-- Hillary Clinton, Labor Day, 2019
Happy Labor Day.
That was Donald Trump a year ago. That was his Labor Day message.
Our Country is doing better than ever before with unemployment setting record lows.
The U.S. has tremendous upside potential as we go about fixing some of the worst Trade Deals ever made by any country in the world.
Big progress being made.
That’s what the President of the United States said a year ago today: “Happy Labor Day! Our country is doing better than ever before with unemployment setting record lows. The U.S. has tremendous upside potential as we go about fixing some of the worst Trade Deals ever made by any country in the world. Big progress being made!”
Back then, Trump thought Labor Day was really Business Day.
Or maybe he thought it was CEO Day, or Stockholder Day. Trade Deal Day. Gross Domestic Product Day. Wall Street Day.
Back then, Donald Trump didn’t really seem to understand that Labor Day was about … well, Labor.
Not profits. Not trade deals. Not the stock market. But Labor.
It’s right there in the name: Labor Day.
And it’s Labor Day for a reason. It’s about labor, it’s about the American worker, it’s about history, because a century ago, those who labored in this country lived radically different, and far worse, lives.
In 1919, the United States was in the middle of the Second Industrial Revolution.
It was a time of war, and wonder, and ever advancing technology.
It began with steel, the Bessemer process to be specific, a cheap and easy way to mass produce strong and reasonably lightweight metals. Strong lightweight steel was the skeleton of the modern age, the core of everything from the new cars to steamships and oil rigs to utensils and lunchboxes, to the machines that manufactured the future. A few years before, in 1911, a tall skinny fellow by the name of Eugene Ely landed a Curtiss #2 Pusher on the deck of USS Pennsylvania and took off again – and thus was born naval aviation, a profound moment that would change the very way wars were fought and thus change almost everything else too and the effects of which are still being felt to this very day. Steel built those ships, the industrial revolution built those airplanes, labor built that mighty military.
If you were moderately wealthy, you could buy a Cadillac with an electric starter.
If you weren’t, you could still maybe afford a Model T. Despite the fact that there were still plenty of horses out there on the roads, the car had become so ubiquitous and affordable that Michigan created the first modern roads when the state started painting white lines down the middle of the more heavily traveled avenues.
Though many factories were still powered by steam, electricity was no longer a novelty. The first modern public elevator began operation in London, England, and soon became common everywhere – leading directly to the modern city skyline. America was booming. Her factories were churning out new products at a record pace. The western frontier had all but disappeared – oh, there were still a few bandits and cattle rustlers out there, but the wild woolly west was long gone. The gold rushes, the boom towns and gun fights were long over. Hell, by 1919 Wyatt Earp was living in Hollywood and working as a consultant for the new movie industry.
It was certainly a marvelous time.
If you could afford it.
If you lived through it.
See, those churning factories were horrible places.
In 1919, most were still powered by a massive central steam engine which drove an enormous flywheel, which in turn powered shafts and belts and pulleys, which finally powered the machines. And though, as noted above, electricity was becoming increasingly common, most of those factories were dark and poorly lit – typically illumination was sunlight through skylights and banks of single pane glazed windows. Often boiling hellholes in the summer and freezing dungeons in the winter – both air conditioning and central heating were still decades away and all those single pane windows didn’t do much to keep out either the cold or the heat. Those factories were filled with smoke and poisonous fumes from the various manufacturing processes, lead vapor, heavy metals, acids, chlorine, bleaches, all were common. Normal working hours were from dawn to dusk, typically anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours a day, sixty and seventy hours per week for wages that would barely pay the rent and put food on a factory worker’s table.
Child labor was common, especially in the textile industry, though in some states there were supposed to be laws regulating it. The kids toiled right alongside their parents. The children typically worked the same hours as adults, but for a quarter, or less, of the pay. Pictures of the time show children working barefoot among the machines, ragged sleeves flapping near the flying belts and spinning pulleys. Whole families hired out to the factories, the men doing the heavy labor, the women and children doing the more delicate tasks.
Towns sprang up around the mills, often controlled by the factory owners. Company towns, where workers very often became little more than indentured servants. Though life in a company town was often better than the alternative on the streets of places like Hell’s Kitchen or out in the hellishly hot cotton and peanut fields of the South. Company towns gave workers a higher standard of living than they would otherwise be able to afford. But the running joke was that while your soul might belong to God, your ass belonged to the company. Mill towns and mining towns and factory towns and logging towns were common across America, places where the company owned everything from your house to your job to the church you prayed in to the store you bought your food from. And prices were whatever made the company the most profit and in many places there were laws that prevented you from renting or buying outside the company town. The company might pay you a decent wage for the time, but they got a lot of it back too. Get crosswise of the company and you lost it all. Get injured on the job and could no longer work, and you lost it all. Get sick, and you could lose it all. Get killed, and your family was out on the street. There was no workman’s comp. No insurance. No retirement but what you managed to save – and since you probably owed a significant debt to the company store, your savings were unlikely to go very far.
Of course, you could always take a pass on factory work and return to the land.
In 1919, millions of Americans were farmers. Farming was hard backbreaking work (it still is, just in a different way) – so hard that seventy hours a week in a smoke filled factory with a high probability of getting maimed or killed looked pretty good in comparison. Most of those farmers, especially in the South, didn’t own their fields. They were sharecroppers, living in conditions little better than slavery or the serfdom of the Dark Ages. Of the small farmers who did own their own land or rather owed the bank for their own land, more than half lived in abject poverty. In the coming decade, the decade of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, most would lose everything.
Most of America was powered by coal in those days and if there was anything that would make life in a factory town or in the sweltering fields look good, it was working in a West Virginia coal mining town. It was a race to see what would kill you first, explosion, cave-in, or the black lung. And just like in the fields and factories, children worked alongside their parents – if they had parents, orphanages were also common. And orphan labor was even cheaper than the average child laborer, both in life and in pay. Renting out orphan labor was a good gig, if you could get it.
In September of 1919, Americans were coming home from Europe, WWI was finally over and the streets were filled with maimed veterans and why does that seem so familiar a century later?
You could always become a merchant seaman, though life at sea was damned rough.
You could move west and become a logger, though you’d probably live longer in the mines of West Virginia or on the ocean.
You could still be a cowboy, or a cop, or carpenter, none which paid worth a good Goddamn, or offered any benefits, or much in the way of a future.
Since people got sick and injured a lot, and most couldn’t afford even rudimentary medical care, many turned to patent medicines. The pharmaceutical industry was only loosely regulated, but by 1919 there were some few laws in a handful of states regulating the more outrageous claims for the various elixirs. The big medicine shows were gone, but there were still plenty of drug store shelves stocked with hundreds of varieties of patent medicines. Some were mostly benign, like Coca-Cola. And some were downright toxic, like Radithor, made from water and radioactive radium. As late as 1917, The Rattlesnake King, Clark Stanley, was still making Stanley’s Snake Oil, a worthless mixture of mineral oil, turpentine, and red pepper, and fleecing sick people out of their money and making them yet sicker (hell, as late as the 1960’s TV’s commercials touted the benefits of smoking for sore throats. And, as late as 1970 there were still X-ray foot measuring devices that would give you cancer, in use in a handful of shoe stores across America).
In 1919, only a few states mandated that your kids attend school, and then only through elementary.
In the South segregation and Jim Crow Laws were in full force and civil rights were decades away. Lynching was as common as sharecropping.
Women could actually vote in six states.
In 1919, maybe three out of ten Americans could ever expect to own a home, most would pay a landlord their whole lives. Middleclass suburbia was a generation and another War World away. Few had any rights in those relationships either, you paid the owner and you lived with what you got or you got thrown out.
In 1919, a lot of Americans were hungry. More than fifty percent of seniors lived in poverty, but then the average lifespan was only about fifty-five, maybe sixty if you hadn’t been breathing coal dust or lead vapor all your life. Few of those seniors had pensions, most lived on the charity of their families – if they were lucky enough to have families. Sanatoriums were a common place for the aged and infirm to spend their brief final years, stacked like cordwood, forgotten, warehoused.
In 1919, if you had ten kids, you might expect six of them to survive to adulthood. If you were lucky. Polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, pneumonia, whooping cough, hard labor in the mines and factories and fields, lack of social safety nets, lack of proper nutrition, lead paint, food poisoning, poverty, orphaned by parents killed by the same, would probably claim at least four of those kids. Likely more.
Ironically, people from that generation always wax nostalgic for The Good Old Days.
And then they immediately proceed to tell you why life was so much harder and more miserable back then.
The simple truth of the matter is nowadays we Americans live a pretty damned good life. And we live that good life because since 1919 we’ve put systems and laws and regulations in place to improve life for all of us. Programs like Social Security and Medicare have a direct and measurable effect on how long we live, and how well. Regulations governing working conditions and workplace safety have a direct and measurable effect on the probability that we’ll survive to retirement. Laws that prevent the rich from owning a whole town, or abusing workers, or turning them into indentured servants, or hiring children at pauper’s wages to maintain the machines in their bare feet, have directly benefitted all but the most greedy few.
And those systems were put in place because Labor fought for them, sometimes, often, at the cost of their very lives.
It is a measure of just how far we’ve come, and just how big an impact that those laws, regulations, and social safety programs have had, that those who directly benefit the most can complain with full bellies just how terrible they have it.
It is a measure of how far we’ve come, and the danger of complacency, that those who don’t remember that history, who again work for less than a living wage, without benefit, without safety nets, without recourse, have been convinced by the wealthy, by business, by politicians, that they don’t need them.
Things like a 40 hour work week, Social Security, Medicare, Workman’s Compensation Insurance, The Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance, child labor laws, federal minimum wage, occupational health and safety standards, the Environmental Protection Agency, The Centers for Disease Control, The departments of Education and Health, Labor Unions and workers’ rights, and yes, even Welfare, all of these things were created for a reason. For a good reason. For compelling reasons.
But if you don’t remember history, then you’ll never know those reasons.
And you will be ever at the mercy of the powerful and greedy.
That’s what this day is supposed to be about.
Because, you see, these protections, those systems, those safety nets, they were created because when you leave it up to the church and charity to feed the hungry and clothe the poor and heal the sick, a hell of a lot of people go hungry and cold and ill.
It is really just that brutally simple.
These things were created because when you leave it up to charity and family to take care of old people, a hell of a lot of old people end up stacked like cordwood in institutions. The moldering remnants of such places are all around us.
These things were put in place because when you leave it up to devoutly righteous people who go to church every Sunday to decide what is right and proper and moral, you end up with lynchings and segregation and Jim Crow. And that is a Goddamned fact.
These things were created because when you leave it up to people to save for their retirement or a rainy day or for accident and infirmity, a hell of a lot of them don’t, or can’t, or won’t.
These things were put in place because when you leave it solely up to the market to weed out poor products and fake medicine and unsafe machines, the market doesn’t, or can’t, or won't, and it’s perfectly happy to go right on killing people for profit.
These things were put in place because when you leave it up to industrialists and share holders to treat their workers with dignity and respect and to pay them a living wage for their hard work, you get indentured servitude. Every. Time. Every single time.
These things were put in place because when you leave it up to the factory owners to decide wages and safety and working hours, you get this:
When you leave it solely up to bankers and the factory owners and the industrialists and the politicians, well, Sir, then what happens is they end up owning it all and you get the privilege of paying them to eat out of their garbage can.
And for most of history, right up until very recently, that’s exactly how it was.
Lately there are a lot of folks who think they want to live in 1919, rather than in 2019.
And that is because they have forgotten, or never knew, the history of Labor in this country.
And nowhere is this foolishness more evident than the White House. In the mindset that put this buffoon in the White House.
Happy Labor Day! Our country is doing better than ever before with unemployment setting record lows. The U.S. has tremendous upside potential as we go about fixing some of the worst Trade Deals ever made by any country in the world. Big progress being made!
A year ago, on this, Labor Day, Trump attacked Labor and crowed about profits.
But this day isn’t about profit.
And there is far more to labor than employment.
The worker in America is doing better than ever before, that’s what Trump said.
It matters, those definitions.
It matters a great deal. It matters because there is an enormous difference in how the wealthy, in how a guy who was born rich and who has never labored a single day in his privileged life, defines “better” and “big progress” and how somebody who works 60 hours a week on the line without a living wage, without healthcare, without benefits, with a paycheck that has stayed flat for the last three decades while CEO salaries have increased more than 900% defines “better” and “big progress.”
Better, progress, those words are defined very, very differently by those who live in the manor house and to those who labor in the fields.
Trump has no idea what this day is about and he is utterly ignorant the history which led to it.
How do I know?
You wonder why I’m using Trump’s comment from a year ago in this post? You wonder why I didn’t use Trump’s Labor Day tweets from today?
Well, that’s because Donald Trump didn’t make any comments about America’s workers today. He spent three hours this morning quoting Fox News, but had nothing to say himself. He again attacked labor unions, the very thing this day is was designed to honor…
… and then bragged about his own supposed accomplishments. That he attacked the press. It was only around noon that the White House twitter account finally managed to crank out a belated Labor Day post – in which they credited Labor’s accomplishments to a man who routinely doesn’t pay his laborers.
Then, he went golfing.
And why would he?
Why would Donald Trump bother honor Labor?
Why would Donald J. Trump know that history? Or care?
For him, for those like him, it’s right there in his own words, money, profit, business. That’s all that matters to the wealthy like him.
But this day was created to remind America of its history, to remember the security and safeties put in place – often at very, very high cost – specifically to protect labor from business, from unfettered greed, from the wealthy.
From those exactly like Donald Trump.
My grandfather once told me there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to be in the first group; there was much less competition.
- Indira Gandhi
Once again, 100% on point. Sad that this is the current state of the union, but I appreciate you and your words more every day. Sending good mojo your way to keep you and yours safe during the Cat 5.ReplyDelete
Right on the mark again, as usual, Jim.ReplyDelete
Spotted one typo: "...another War World away." Other than that, bang on.ReplyDelete
Mind, the typo may have its own level of appropriateness...
WOW! Thank you Jim!ReplyDelete
Thank you, once again, for your informed contribution. In Solidarity from Alaska.ReplyDelete
Donation sent. One artist to another...ReplyDelete
What is amazing is how many people can be convinced by the people who keep them down that it's the government that oppresses them. When their only real allies are each other when organized and the elected officials they vote for.ReplyDelete
It's not the rich who need government.
Excellent Labor Day post. Thanks again Jim.ReplyDelete
Thank you for recognizing the worth of labor unions and hard fought for labor laws. Most union workers want decent conditions and decent pay for good work. Having heard a management negotiator say, "Secretaries are a dime a dozen," I truly believe this is the attitude of the upper 1%. Thank you also for the mini history lesson -- we all need reminders,ReplyDelete
And the best managers recognize the corollary that good secretaries are worth their weight in gold. It's amazing how many managers in the, sadly larger, first category that you describe, go on to be dumbfounded as to why their organizations don't run as smoothly as others!Delete
Good column, and obviously your choice of 1919 for comparison makes sense for literary reasons. But for readers who get as far as the comments section, I'd like to point out that the great progress achieved since 1919 has a foundation in the battles fought in the half-century before 1919. The labor organizers and hell-raisers of that time (Mother Jones being a personal favorite of mine) often achieved little more than the right to be heard. But their work laid the foundation for the great improvements for workers that came later. So I tip my hat to all of the workers who stood up to their bosses, even when it was futile, and laid the groundwork for progress they did not live to see.ReplyDelete
You speak the truthReplyDelete
I'm reading Karl Marlantes' latest novel.One of the main plot line is about the organization of the NW logging camps in the early 19th century.ReplyDelete
Learning a lot.
As the IWW said: The next time someone tells you that they got wealthy through hard work, ask them, "Whose?"ReplyDelete
When viewed through the lens of US history and the evolution of collective bargaining, the avarice and ignorance of this “president“ are stunning. But I don’t suppose trump or his enablers take much stock in history. They are aware of how government limits the ways in which they can amass vast power and personal wealth, but oblivious to the reasons those limitations exist.ReplyDelete
You give them too much credit. I believe they are fully aware of the past, as it relates to labor, corporations, and wealth, and how they are pushing the country backward.Delete
This is a masterfully written piece. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Unions weren't responsible for "40-hour work weeks, safe working conditions, higher wages, weekends, and a day off (on Labor Day)". Those benefits, and many more, including child-labor laws, were realized for all American workers by Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor. Perkins had presented Roosevelt with a non-negotiable list before accepting the President-elect's offer. She was one of 2 Cabinet Secretaries to last the entire 12 yrs, one month of his term of office.ReplyDelete
Unions wanted thes protections, and some were included in contracts of the era, but the unions wanted them ONLY for "union members". Unions, like most other organizations run by human beings, are prone to self-interest, corruption and pettiness. Unions fought Perkins' efforts to get legislation passed that would improve the lives of all Americans almost as strongly as Big Business did. Some of the compromises that would keep certain classes, like wages and working conditions for wait staffs, farm workers and piece workers were necessitated by the unions' interference.
Frances Perkins acted in the interests of working Americans. Unions act in the interests of their members, mostly. Celebrating the protections afforded to all workers on this day shouldn't elevate those who acted only in their own interests. Republikans have rolled back many of the protections, without a peep from unions. Give a nod with your Lanor Day BBQ & bevarage of choice to the woman who tryly made it all possible. It was, after all, her life's work.
Anarchitek--Thank you for this; it's good to have the whole story.Delete
Your comments have given me an entire new area of research to embark upon. Thank you.Delete
Good to know.Delete
*bowing to your towering intellect* Thank you.Delete
Thanks for this!Delete
My Dad carried a union card for 42 years. I carried mine for 30. Unions gave our families- his and mine- the opportunity as ordinary people to have a better life. So many have forgotten what working people achieved with the help of unions. Thanks for another excellent essay.ReplyDelete
I am proud of some of the jobs I have held, especially as an industrial hygienist. I will always feel proud of the fact I helped unionize my last job.ReplyDelete
Nice piece. You have a knack for peeling back the artichoke and getting to the heart.ReplyDelete
Happy Labor Day! :)
Even those of us who know much of this history and recognize its significance benefit from reading your work on this Labor Day. It's so easy to put it aside. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Happy Labor Day Jim. Thank you. You're spot on as usual.ReplyDelete
Wonderful essay. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Thank you for reminding us what's at stake. We have a wonderful country made up of hard working people who we have to strive to protect from the greed of the wealthy. We can never go back to that crap.ReplyDelete
Thanks Jim - as each year passes by, it is your words and wisdom that helps me make it. Spent most my working life in labor industry; logging, farming, ranching, commercial fishing and more. I labored like many of my fellow women and men but for the most part, like them, came home tired, worn out, but alive. Did a stint mostly inside working the medical field. Met and worked with some of the best but 5yrs ago got RIF'ed with a 4 day notice. Was a blessing in disguise as I went back to physical labor. Now at 58yrs I nurse a torn rotator cuff, hearing loss and hands that are forever curved and calloused from driving truck, pulling fuel hose and manual freight/warehouse work, and it is daily, 7 days a week work. Not writing for sympathy, as odd as it sounds, I wouldn't trade it for a thing. I, like many, can look in the mirror each night, dog-ass worn out and hurting but proud that I helped in some way to keep this country going. Today, Labor Day, was my first day off in months. Worked the "Honey Do" list while listening to Merle's Workin' Man Blues, Nitty Gritty Dirt Bands Long Hard Road, Workin' Man and Mr Bojangles and more. Keep doing what your are doing Jim, for us workin' folks; be it in the city, country, mountains or the sea, you speak to us all and I thank you.ReplyDelete
Goddamn, Jim, you really are amazing. Thank you for--as always--a masterful piece that more people need to read.ReplyDelete
So, once more I have to discard the draft of a post I was preparing for my blog because you beat me to it, and i don't want to be accused of plagiarizing one of my favorite writers. Mine was to be a riff on Mark Twain's "History doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme", about the similarities between the Gilded Age and today. Please keep up the good fight.ReplyDelete
Go ahead and write it up; you will undoubtedly have a different style than Our Esteemed Host, and another take on the subject won't hurt.Delete
I’m reminded of a short series that the History Channel did about “the men who made America”, the industrialists of the late 19th century. One of the profiled was Andrew Carnegie. They talked about how he took on a partner by the name of Henry Clay Frick. Frick was violently anti-union and his actions at Homestead Steel lead to the murder of several workers fighting for workers’ rights. Carnegie’s reputation was seriously damaged even though he was out of the country. I strongly believe that he knew Frick would use incited violence and didn’t want to get his hands dirty. His many acts of philanthropy were likely trying to make up for the damage he’d done.ReplyDelete
At least he had a change of heart and tried to make up for it. 45 never will, nor will most of his cronies.
Excellent history lesson. If only every American, not excepting the doofus in the White House, would read it.ReplyDelete
Incredible essay, as always. I'm curious, have you had the opportunity to read A Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker by Theresa S. Malkiel? While the Shirtwaist strikes were unsuccessful, I found the book a helpful window into what was at stake in the early fight for labor rights.ReplyDelete
I think an important part of the conversation still needs to be about who was doing the fighting. Minoritized communities have consistently been the heart and soul of the labor rights movements in this country. White people were there, and made important contributions, but much of the best of our country comes from the people our country most consistently ignores and abuses.
My grandfather had friends in the haymarket riots and from Pullman town. his Brother ran for president against Taft, Grandmother was a suffragette, my mom marched against nam burned her bra, marched for civil rights was a friend of huey long and chained herself to the old chicago stockmarket building for 3 days, before poppadoc dailey mercilessly tore it down. I marched along side her and took up the mantel on my own for the march against nuclear proliferation and equal pay for equal work. I marched again 4 times since el hephe was elected and I'll be damned ( might still anyway but what the hell, right?) if Ill let that fat lazy cheeto roll back a single thing without a fight. He will get it from my cold dead hand if that's what it takes. On my shield or under it, Solidarity!ReplyDelete
If you want a visual look at what Jim describes try Peaky Blinders on Netfix. (Different country but same deal) An accurate portrayal of city & factory life in the early 20s. Whether intentional or not, the policies of right-wing governments, in America, Canada & Britain, if left unchecked would send us right back there. Just think about the winding back of environmental regulations, privatization of schooling & healthcare, removal of social safety nets & the deregulation of labour. It's all there in these policies.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this. My great-grandfather was "management" when the workers went on strike. He walked out with them and lost his job. Never got a job that paid as well again, but he could sleep at night.ReplyDelete
Thanks for reminding us of the history of why the common persons voice matters. The Kochs', Mercers, etc. have spent billions over decades to obliterate that history with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, etc. Pretty effectively with 35 to 40% of our fellow citizens. Every voice like yours pounding ACTUAL history is invaluable.ReplyDelete
Lincoln considered labor superior to capital and routinely corresponded with Karl Marx.ReplyDelete
What this nation needs is a good General Strike or a "buy nothing" day..... maybe both,
Grateful for your work, Jim. This one was a long time coming and well worth the wait. Thanks.ReplyDelete
Up The Workers!ReplyDelete