Today many of us have the day off from work to celebrate Labor Day. For many it’s the traditional end of summer and the beginning of the campaign season for November’s election (even though campaigning these days seems to be continuous).
But it got me thinking about labor and the role of work in our lives. Earlier this year I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Both men were members of the Republican Party and both were President (Theodore Roosevelt served from 1901 to 1909 and William Howard Taft served from 1909 to 1913).
They were also progressives and did much to advance the cause of the working man and woman. The late 1800s and early 1900s were very good if you were rich and very bad if you were poor. While we know the names of the wealthiest, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan (among others), we don’t know the millions of people whose labor made their fortune.
It was commonly held back then that if you went to work for someone, he told you how much you were getting paid and you accepted it, even if if meant you and your family were going to live in abject poverty with little hope of relief. The Bully Pulpit gave me a quote that succinctly describes this. George M. Pullman developed the railroad sleeping car and dining car and founded the Pullman Palace Car Company. When describing the conditions of his workers he made it sound like a paradise. The lived in homes owned by Pullman, shopped in stores owned by Pullman and worshiped in churches owned by Pullman. The problem was that Pullman cut their wages in 1894 claiming that the company needed to do that to survive. It was later learned that the company paid out dividends to its stockholders that year of over $2,000,000 and reported profits of $25,000,000 (this in 1894 dollars).
When the workers attempted to arbitrate with the company, Pullman responded that there was nothing to arbitrate. He insisted that workers have nothing to do with the amount of wages they shall receive; that is solely the business of the company (you can read this on page 186 of Doris’ book: she footnotes Ray Stannard Baker). This, and hundreds of other examples, launched the labor movement in the United States and the organization of unions. We often look at this time as the era of Robber Barons.
Even the Vatican weighed in. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical called Rerum Novarum, commonly translated as “On Human Labor.” The Pope was concerned that workers were being exploited and wrote about the dignity of the individual worker. Truth be told he was equally concerned that the backlash against the Robber Barons would be acceptance of socialism, but his words are worth a read.
In the time since there have been incredible reforms. We now have a minimum wage. Child labor is (at least legally) almost nonexistent. Most of us work a 5 day, 40 hour week with paid vacation, holidays and sick leave. Most of the time we have recourse if we feel we are being treated unfairly. Most of the time we work in safe environments and are compensated if we are injured on the job. But none of this came easy. Our parents and grandparents had to fight for every one of these reforms and none of them are guaranteed to our children and grandchildren.
In my family I am the first generation who never had to work in a factory. My parents grew up in Gardner, Massachusetts where almost everyone, at least at some point in their lives, worked for the Heywood – Wakefield Furniture Company. The work was repetitive, exhausting, and boring. I am who I am because they worked hard to give me a chance to move beyond that. I will never forget that.
We honor Labor Day not by cooking hot dogs or going to the beach. We honor Labor Day by honoring laborers. Let’s all agree to keep fighting for the things they fought for.