Roots of American labor movement rich in gains
September 5, 1999
There is much about working today that people take for granted the eight-hour work day, paid vacations, company pension funds, health and welfare protection and equal opportunity employment and today is the day to celebrate the rights employees take for granted.
Labor Day the holiday Monday came about to remember the costs of the labor movement in America.
In the past century, the American labor movement has played a central role in the evolution of the American standard of living. The gains unions have been able to achieve have brought benefits, direct and indirect, to the public as a whole.
But, improvement in working conditions did not come easily and the cost in human lives was high. Those lives brought organized unions, the right to representation and a decrease in bias and discrimination.
Most citizens of the United States take for granted the labor laws which protect them from the evils of unregulated industry.
Before the establishment of labor protection groups such as the Knights of Labor, thousands of people were killed in the United States government’s attempt to thwart fair labor practices. Many of those killed where put to death by town sheriffs, state militia and other government representatives.
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On Nov. 22, 1909, female garment workers went on strike in New York City to protest long working days and unsafe conditions. Many were arrested. A judge told those arrested, “You are on strike against God.”
Some of the deaths were caused by overzealous union supporters and vigilantes.
Through the years, workers have fought for higher pay, safer working conditions, shorter working hours and restrictions on the abuse of immigrant and child labor in sweatshops.
The ball pushing for stronger labor protection laws began to roll in 1806 when a union of Philadelphia Journeymen Cordwainers was convicted and bankrupted by charges of criminal conspiracy after a strike for higher wages. The rule set a precedent by which the government would combat unions for many years.
Another strike didn’t occur until April 27, 1825, when carpenters in Boston fought for a 10-hour working day. Movements were being made in individual businesses to limit working hours, but a law reducing the amount of work allowed in a day didn’t follow for many years. There was no law made when children working in silk mills went on strike July 3, 1835, protesting 11-hour work days, six days a week.
In years following, strikes occurred regularly with workers protesting working conditions and low pay.
The first labor movement casualties occurred in 1874 when mounted police charged into an unemployment demonstration, beating men, women and children and injuring hundreds in their wake.
A string of deaths followed Americans on their quest for better labor laws.
On July 14, 1877, a general strike halted the movement of U.S. railroads. Strike riots spread across the United States. The next week, federal troops were called out to force an end to the strike. Thirty workers were killed and more than 100 were wounded.
Things began to look up by 1882 when more than 30,000 workers marched in the first Labor Day parade in New York City. The parade was suggested by Peter J. McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. It is argued that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, was truly the originator of the first Labor Day. It was united by the Knights of Labor and held on a Tuesday.
The first parades were really protest rallies for the adoption of an eight-hour day and many participants had to give up a day’s pay to march. It is rumored the New York City Central Labor Union levied a fine on non-participants.
Two years later, the group held a parade on the first Monday of September and passed a resolution designating the day as Labor Day. In March of 1887, Colorado was the second state to pass a law making Labor Day a legal holiday. Other states joined and by 1894, the U.S. Congress made the day a legal holiday.
Now the holiday is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly, national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the labor movement of the county.
The creation of Labor Day didn’t bring an end to bloody fights over worker rights.
On June 8, 1904, the Colorado militia initiated a battle with striking miners in Dunnville. Six union members died in the altercation and 15 were taken prisoner and deported to Kansas.
Legislation had not caught up with the national stance on honoring workers. In 1908 an act making it illegal for railroad employers to fire employees for being involved in union activities was declared unconstitutional.
As of 1911, sweatshop conditions still existed across the county. In March 1911 a New York City sweatshop was consumed by fire. More than 140 women and children died, many burned to death as they attempted to escape through stairway exits locked as a precaution against the “interruption of work.”
Three years later what history refers to as the “Ludlow Massacre” occurred. In an attempt to persuade strikers in the Ludlow Mine in Colorado to return to work, company guards and state militia attacked a union tent camp with machine guns then set it on fire. Five men, two women and 12 children died.
As the years passed, government and local militia used increasingly brutal methods to break up unions and strikes. Tactics included everything from hiring thugs to kill strike leaders to seizing communication lines to the “deportation” of striking workers. In 1919, 250 steelworkers were deported to Russia after being labeled as anarchists, communists and labor agitators.
It wasn’t until 1917 that the labor movement saw success. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the Eight-Hour Act, but only under the threat of a national railway strike. Two laws setting limits on child labor were declared unconstitutional. Another child labor amendment was proposed in 1924, but only 28 of the necessary 36 states ratified it. It wasn’t until 1940 that the 40-hour work week went into effect under the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed only two years earlier.
Striking still occurred, but strikers weren’t treated as brutally as they had been in the past. And now that labor laws had been enacted, their focus changed. Fair wages and equal opportunity employment became the focus. In 1986, 1,700 female flight attendants won an 18-year lawsuit against United Airlines which had fired them for getting married.
Getting fair labor laws was a struggle that took Americans more than 100 years and countless lives, but the result is one many people feel is worth it. It is the reason why so many Americans aren’t working today and most are still getting paid for it.