Allen Woods: Take the day off, and thank early unions


Published: 09-02-2023 7:00 PM

Here’s a gift — a weekend we generally consider the end of summer, and a paid day off (for some) from the workplace. Most of us will take a short trip, indulge in a hobby, or simply laze about without even considering the day’s original intent: celebrating “the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

Labor Day was formally established in the 1890s, and the struggles and advancements it symbolizes — then and now — fill many books. But one thing is certain: the fight to achieve safe, dependable, and fairly paid jobs was a full-scale war between workers and owners at times, with economic attacks replacing physical violence at others.

Corporations (more popular in the US than anywhere else since the early 1800s) and the “Captains of Industry” (or “robber barons,” depending on your view) did not give up power over the workplace easily. Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Carnegie were generous philanthropists on one hand, supporting libraries, museums and colleges with millions in donations, but utterly ruthless in business.

According to a 1969 study, “The United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world.” Another counts more than 1,100 deaths in the U.S. related to labor disputes since 1877, including over 100 in that year alone.

Union activists killed a few, but the owners were always the richest, best-armed, and deadliest. Government troops and trained mercenaries (e.g., the Pinkerton Agency, employed to attack strikers and violently intimidate supporters) were responsible for the vast majority of fatalities.

One of the most famous incidents, although not the most violent, occurred in 1886 in Chicago. Companies in Illinois refused to recognize labor’s deadline of May 1 for an eight-hour day, and local strikers were supported by strikes across the Midwest, with an estimated 350,000 participating. Conflicts in Chicago continued for four days, with police firing on the crowds until a bomb exploded near Haymarket Square that killed seven policemen. Eventually, several of the protest’s organizers were tried and executed, though no evidence tied them to the bomb that killed police and it was never proven that it was intended for the police rather than the strikers.

Government officials worried that an international movement identifying May 1 as a day of solidarity worldwide would drive more workers to embrace Marxism, socialism, or anarchism. They may have also realized that workers’ grievances were valid after their own study in 1890 found the average full-time manufacturing employee worked over 100 hours per week.

Violent clashes continued, with about 100 more deaths in 1886 and 100 more in the following seven years — a shocking number to many in my generation who were almost overwhelmed when the National Guard killed four protesters in Ohio in 1970. The government did its best to dilute workers’ anger by giving them an honorary “Labor Day” holiday in 1894, and large union parades and festive celebrations were encouraged.

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Unions haven’t been perfect, either, especially at their strongest in the 1950s and ’60s when organized crime and leaders like Jimmy Hoffa controlled many of the largest unions and stole millions from their pension funds and dues. Today, public-sector unions make it almost impossible to fire even the worst teachers or police officers.

But, where would workers be without unions and their sacrifices? A few “moral capitalists” have formed strong partnerships with workers, realizing that happy and motivated employees provide better bottom-line profits. But in most cases, “predatory capitalists” bow down to the god of short-term payouts for shareholders, with workers and communities left to fight for the crumbs after top executives and stockholders have been paid. Without unions, we wouldn’t have the 40-hour week, eight-hour day, overtime pay, paid holidays, workers’ health insurance, restrictions on child labor, and workplaces that are required to follow basic health and safety procedures.

With only 10.1% of U.S. workers belonging to unions, the lowest percentage in decades, and the list of essential workers (required to work even if it endangered their health) expanded during COVID to include retail sales and child-care workers, we can at least take a few moments to acknowledge their place in our working history. The same issues face workers today as in unions’ earliest days: Many employers still treat workers as disposable commodities, doing all they can to lower pay and increase hours regardless of workers’ individual and family needs. Workers united with other workers are often their only defense, and offer a limited opportunity to share in the wealth.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at