To most of us, Labor Day means a long weekend, the last chance to get away in summer, a quick trip to the beach before school starts, or maybe just a family picnic. Labor Day had some very serious origins. Before Labor Day was declared an official holiday by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, there was a long, violent struggle for basic worker rights. Back then, the routine workweek was twelve hours a day, six days a week, with low wages, no paid vacation, no sick days, no pensions, no holidays, and no unemployment insurance. In addition, thousands of Americans died in unsafe factories and mines.
Both business and government fought against the labor movement (and some still do). Hundreds of people were killed in riots and battles over worker rights.
One incident particularly inflamed the desire for worker rights. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. The top three floors quickly were engulfed in flames in the reputedly fireproof building. Most of the workers were Jewish and Italian women, some as young as 14, who had recently immigrated. They found themselves trapped in a terrible inferno. Groups of young women jumped to their deaths from the ninth floor. One man dropped women out of the windows. Fire department nets were ripped and torn by jumpers. On the outside, bodies piled up on the sidewalk and blocked the fire engines. On the inside, burned bodies piled up at locked doors, blocked exits, and some burned beyond recognition while still sitting at their sewing machines.
The factors that caused this tragedy were bad management, overcrowding, dangerous working conditions, and bad architecture.
Managers frequently locked the exits to prevent workers from sneaking out for a break and to prevent stealing. Those locked doors stopped workers from escaping the fire. Other exits were blocked with boxes which had been accumulating for months. The architect had been given special permission to omit one staircase in his design, and exit doors were designed to open inward, making it almost impossible to open the doors when panic-stricken workers rushed them. The poorly built fire escape caused it to collapse when many workers started using it to escape the fire, killing many.
This tragic fire, along with many other bad incidents, fired up the workers and their demands for safer working conditions, and led the public to support them. The labor movement made great gains after these tragic events. Workers organized and formed unions, and Labor Day became a special day to honor the American worker. The day usually consisted of public parades to show unity and accord between the trade and labor unions and the community. Then, there was recreation, entertainment, and speeches by prominent men and women.
Most all Americans have benefitted directly or indirectly due to unions. Unions fought for:
1. The weekend. The average work week in 1870 was 61 hours.
2. Fair wages and relative income equality.
3. The end of child labor.
4. Widespread employer based healthcare.
5. The Family and Medical Leave Act.
President Abraham Lincoln said, “Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.” In 1861, he told Congress, “Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”
Some people say that we don’t need unions today, but I would differ. Whenever 1 percent of the population possesses 99 percent of the wealth in America, the middle class has been almost destroyed and large companies are maximizing their profits by reducing or eliminating worker benefits—we need unions. I applaud the working people of America who have, through their unions, brought us so many of the benefits we enjoy. Maybe we need a few more parades to show our appreciation.
Robert Wilkerson, D-Min., is a minister, writer, and author of several books. He and his wife live in Oneonta.