Labor Day is the party holiday, celebrating a day of rest for workers, and it’s a more American holiday than May Day, which is much more international and much more radically pro-labor. This is by design.
While celebrating Labor Day in the US goes back to 1882 in New York City, it was not until 1894, in an effort to mollify an angry workers movement after the US military murdered some 13 Pullman Strike workers, that Grover Cleveland hurriedly pushed through legislation making Labor Day an official US holiday.
Interestingly, in a chickens-coming-home-to-roost back story, the military officer presiding over the murder of these striking American workers was the same Nelson Miles who took his Civil War stripes out west to lead the largest military campaigns ever against Kiowa, Apache, Lakota and others. He betrayed tribe after tribe, making promises he never intended to keep, cynically using them, stealing vast areas, and advocated long-term military occupation of their lands. He also helped seize Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War, on the pretext of ‘liberating’ it from the Spanish, only to put it under US control rather than free it. So when he callously ordered live ammunition used on rail workers on strike, the power of the US military came back home hard.
Another interesting back story element is that the entire Pullman Strike was precipitated by the 1893 recession and the Pullman corporation’s use of it to lower wages but not lower rents in the company-owned housing. Greedy corporadoes using economic hard times to squeeze more profits–some things never change.
Labor unions at the time were racist, which is yet another back story component, since the Pullman company then used African Americans as willing strikebreakers–why should they be loyal to a movement that had locked them out just as surely as Pullman locked out Eugene Debs’s American Railway Union? Pullman porters were subsequently eventually almost 100 percent black and that labor movement, led by A. Phillip Randolph, helped build the base of what would become the post-World War II American Civil Rights movement. Racism in labor unions was structural, not merely anecdotal, and that old divide-and-conquer corporate strategy continues today, mostly with immigration issues, so our grassroots advancement has always been plagued by that sickness.
Now the party of labor–the Democrats–will be punished by labor at the next election in just two months, because the Executive and Legislative branches of government are both under their control and still can’t manage to cut the unemployment rate–indeed, it ticked up again in August, pushing toward 10 percent, even though the private sector added more than 50,000 jobs (one would hope so, after the many hundreds of $billions in bailouts and stimulus shoveled into their deep pockets).
What is truly astonishing is that the unemployment rate is climbing when the Ds are in control of the purse-strings and they cannot commit funds to create government jobs. Our country has enormous infrastructure needs that could be addressed by low-paid, high-benefit government workers. Public buildings need energy efficiency retrofitting. Bike paths would greatly assist our transition away from our energy wasting lifestyle, both commuting and recreational paths.
The nation could use another million proper curb cuts for wheelchairs, baby strollers, bicyclists and elderly citizens. The forests at the country, state and national levels all need workers to harvest downed wood for electric biomass power plants that could reduce our dependence on coal, nuclear, and oil. This is the tip of the labor iceberg that could provide these jobs for Americans, if only we’d stop subsidizing the greed and start attending to the need.
Happy Labor Day. Time for another uprising. Nonviolent civil society, unified across racial, ethnic, class and religious lines, has all the power if they ever choose to use it.
Tom H. Hastings ([email protected]) is a Catholic Worker in Portland, Oregon living in Whitefeather Peace House, named for the great nonviolent Native American holy man.