Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Now That Labor Day Is Over Lets Get Back To Work

On September 2, 2001 PBS News aired a brief but interesting history of the origins of the Labor Day holiday. Now that everyone has put away the camping gear and stashed the cooler on a shelf in the garage, where it will sit until Memorial Day next spring, it is a good time to think about those who built this nation.
 
That is one of the contentious issue of our day. President Obama recently attempted to argue that any successful endeavor is the result of the labors of many people and many institutions, including the government. His opponents in the election have seized upon one phrase in his remarks and attempted to paint him as anti-entrepreneurial. But, despite their dishonest interpretation of his remarks, they do, at least, give us a reason to ask the question, “Who built this?”
 
In the late 1800s a movement had been afoot for several years to have a day set aside to honor working people, but it had not gained much ground because working people, though numerous in the millions, were essentially without political power and easily ignored. Any attempt by workers to organize and bargain collectively was crushed with the aid of government troops and at the insistence of the Industrial Barons of the day. However, the situation regarding the establishment of a “Labor Day” changed dramatically in late 1894 and, almost miraculously, Labor Day was born.
 
But a little history is needed so I’ll provide a summary of the PBS broadcast that I referenced before. You can read the entire piece in a few minutes by following this link.
 
George Pullman was an industrialist whose company, in the late 1800s, built railroad sleeping cars that bore his name. A “Pullman” came to be the name for any railroad car that provided sleeping births just as a “Kleenex” has come to be, for many people, the name of any facial tissue.
 
Pullman was apparently a humane man by his lights, and probably by the lights of many in his generation. Concerned about the corruption of morals engendered in a big city environment, he built his own company town, named for him, of course, just south of Chicago. In addition to the facilities needed to produce his sleeper cars, the town provided housing for his workers and their families, a company bank, a company store, etc. Pullman set the worker’s wages – high enough to keep them working, but not enough to tempt them into sinful opulence; that was reserved for Pullman and his fellow industrial barons.  He set the rent for housing, set the prices in the company store, paid their wages from the company bank, minus the cost of rent. It was a utopian existence. No doubt many of the workers agreed . . . as long as it worked.
 
However, in 1893 the nation fell into one of its recurring depressions and sales of railroad sleeper cars fell off. Pullman had to lay off a large portion of his workers and those who remained had their wages cut . . . but not their rent. As the workers situation became more and more desperate they began to organize a union under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, demanding higher pay and lower rents. The result was inevitable. President Cleveland, yielding to pressure from his wealthy supporters, declared the strike a federal crime and sent in 12,000 federal troops to put it down. It was the way things were done then and, as we discovered in Wisconsin last year, the way things are still done when too much power is placed in the hands of one side or the other. A couple of strikers died and Debs went to prison. So much for that labor union. Anyone else want to try? The workers went back to their jobs under Pullman’s rules and at his wages.
 
However, 1894 was an election year and Cleveland was locked in a difficult contest for re-election. Though he was not willing to support the Pullman workers in their hour of need he hoped to persuade them to help him in his. He threw his support behind the establishment of a national Labor Day, hoping to placate the disgruntled workers whose hopes his “army” had crushed a few months earlier. A bill establishing a national Labor Day sailed quickly through Congress with bi-partisan support and was signed into law shortly before Election Day. It did not gain the labor vote for Cleveland – he lost the election anyway – but Labor Day had become a reality.
 
This Pyrrhic victory for labor has given politicians, for a hundred succeeding years, the opportunity to praise the efforts of the working people of our nation; to tell them, “This Land Is Your Land. You built it with your labor.”
 
So, who did build the Pullman empire? George Pullman certainly had the vision that propelled it into existence. His money, and the money of his stockholders, furnished the factory and tools needed to produce the Pullman Sleepers. But what about the hundreds of workers whose 10 hour days caused the cars to roll off the assembly line. Or does their labor not count because they were paid for it? But so was Pullman and the stockholders. And what about the citizens of the U.S. whose valuable public lands were give to the railroads at little or no cost? Or what about the tax payers who footed the bill for 12,000 federal soldiers to crush the workers strike and allow Pullman to continue paying wages less than their cost of living? And what about those workers who struggled, in the years after the strike, to live on such wages?
 
Pullman deserves to be remembered for the contribution his idea made to comfortable rail travel. He is entitled to a fair return on his investment and a fair wage for the leadership he gave to his company. But he did not build the Pullman Company alone. Every worker in his factory, and every holder of stock in his company, and every citizen of the United States had a hand in the success of his enterprise.
 
But in the end, Pullman got the money, and the bragging rights. Eugene V. Debs got prison time. A couple of strikers got “early retirement.” The workers of America got Labor Day. This Labor Day 2012, at our family gathering, three members had to work. They were busy “building” businesses that others will take credit for building.

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