Labor Day – US version

Today is Labor Day in the United States. Depending on where you are, school starts tomorrow if it has not already (sorry home-school kids. No break for you). Public pools and some private outdoor pools close for weekdays, or for the season. The local amusement park will shut down for the season after Monday, and the corn maze and pumpkin patch will be opening soon. Two-thirds of the commercials on TV are for Labor Day sales, as they have been for the past week at least. Halloween candy has started to appear in the store.

Labor Day as a formal event began in the US in the 1870s and 1880s, with the arrival of large numbers of immigrant workers from Europe (as opposed to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland). Heavy industry needed large numbers of strong backs, and so the steel, railroad, construction, mining (in some places), packing plants, and so on hired “foreigners.” Some Americanized pretty quickly, like a lot of the people from the western parts of the German-speaking lands, while others stuck out more. Bohemians, Hungarians, Poles, Italians all tended to be Catholic, spoke funny, dressed funny, and didn’t blend in all that well at first. And they were willing to work for what seemed like near-starvation wages and to live in cramped conditions until they made enough money to escape to better options. Some employers and industries took advantage of that.

At the same time, the ideas of Karl Marx and others about the role of labor as compared to management, and of the importance of all workers cooperating for the benefit of all, had started filtering into the US. Sometimes, German workers would bring the ideas with them. In other cases it was native-born Americans who picked a few of the socialist ideas and left the rest on the ground. Either way, a labor movement started. There had been local and individual pushes by employees to maintain certain traditional rights (like “Blue Monday” when you were not expected to do much work because of drinking heavily the day before) against increasing attempts by factory and shop owners to tidy up and regulate employees’ behavior. In some cases, labor movements and what we now call strikes worked well. In others, well, Pullman Riots, Molly Maguires, Ludlow Massacre, and so on.

May Day, May 1, as a day of solidarity for the working man began in the US, in Chicago, as a result of the Haymarket Massacre. Whether the police threw the bomb, or an anarchist did it, or one of the labor-movement folks, a bomb went off during a labor rally in the Haymarket Square. The police opened fire, some people in the crowd may have fired back, and other people were injured in the rush of people just trying to get away. This led to a lot of prosecutions, finger-pointing, and seven men were sentenced to death (four executed) for the attack. It was not a great moment for either labor, or management, or the criminal justice system. But May One became Labor Day.

Alas, the first of May in large parts of the US is not a great weather day for taking off and celebrating, and once the date started being associated with off-brand bomb throwers and foreign Marxists, people like Samuel Gompers and other union leaders in the US backed away from May First. If you want to celebrate labor and the working man with things like parades and picnics and outdoor events, why not do it on a day that usually has good weather all over the US? And on a day that is not associated with Communism. So we get Labor Day in September.

I’ve been watching, when schedule permits, Mike Rowe’s series about factory jobs. Aluminum foundries, a brick factory, and similar places feature in the series, and he takes a “day in the life” approach to the places, talking about what they make, who uses their products, and giving a bit of background for several of the workers at the plant. All work factory-floor jobs, trouble-shooting problems, running equipment, designing molds for custom bricks, planning the lay-out and packing needed to make a non-standard brick arch before cutting the bricks to fit and then packing them for delivery, or replacing parts on a smelter or extruder on the fly. One show was about the behind-the-scenes at DFW Airport, everyone from baggage-belt repairmen to ground crews (gas and baggage) to fixing parking-lot lights and chasing birds away from the runways.

These folks work hard, they take pride in their work, and make good money. They might not have more than a high school diploma, but they are smart and creative, which is why they’ve gotten where they are in their jobs. It’s not romantic “heroes of toil” stuff, but frustrations, bleeped words, snarling about whoever put the wrong stuff in the finishing tray, and then satisfaction when everything does what it should and a huge roll of sheet aluminum goes out the door, ready for delivery.

This is what Labor Day’s about – work and the people who do it. The kind of stuff that is easy to forget about some times, especially if you are in a field where you do “think-work,” or if you are not fascinated with “how do they make that” like I am. (Watching production machinery and things like steel mills will keep me entertained for an hour, at least.)

Happy Labor Day for those who celebrate it!

8 thoughts on “Labor Day – US version

  1. “How they make that” should be a part of every child’s education. Our way of life is based on makers far from consumers, and consumers largely ignorant of how things are made. And there are y.t. vids on industrial and agricultural machines and processes. If you have chikdren, let them see this. Let them know that it is work guided by ingenuity, not utopian dreams, that provide prosperity. And don’t forget =I, Pencil=, one of the greatest lessons available.

  2. My mom was from Rock Springs, Wyoming, a town that prides itself on its immigrant heritage claiming to be home for 56 nationalities. Not bragged about is how those 56 nationalities came to the Southern Wyoming wilderness in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

    With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad took title to the coal in and around Rock Springs, formerly a water stop on the Oregon Trail, Pony Express and later the Overland Stage routes. UPRR needed miners to develop coal mines in the area. Due to the geography, the only viable mining method was underground. UP initially recruited English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish miners. Ability to speak english was the primary qualification, as well as (informed or not) a willingness to relocate to the western frontier with a harsh winter climate. As time goes on, the existing miners begin to realize that the wages aren’t commiserate with the risks, and the company owned housing and the company store system were designed to keep them and their families in the mines. As talk of Union formation grows, UP begins recruiting miners from other European countries who are willing to work for lesser wages, and not push for Unionization. The cycle repeats, going through Scandinavia, France, Italy, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, Georgia, etc. Eventually UP brought in Chinese miners. This was kind of a “last straw” and resulted in the Anti-Chinese Riots of the mid 1880s. Even into the early 1900s, my grandfather was blacklisted for union activity. Eventually the mines were Unionized, although corruption of Union leaders made that victory somewhat pyrrhic.

    • “Eventually the mines were Unionized, although corruption of Union leaders made that victory somewhat pyrrhic.”
      Say hello to the new boss. Same as the old boss.

      I’m from Ohio, and grew up knowing that union = mafia. Did you know that unions can legally get away with behavior that would get mafiosi a life sentence?

      • Yep. Based on what little (compared to what’s out there) I’ve read about the history of labor and unions in US history, back in the period 1870-1910 or so, unions generally (but not always) benefited workers and accomplished positive things. Then they got more and more political power, and Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy became the rule.

        Labor history is NOT my specialty.

  3. Father was a line rat at the Ford Wixom plant and Grandma was a Rosie. Unions do some good but totally agree with McChuck. Hoffa earned his unmarked grave.

  4. Quote

    Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
    I owe my soul to the company store

    End Quote

  5. Yep, many sides to the multiple arguments. But Labor Day IS about those that actually do the work. And we are thankful that they do!!!

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