Labor Day marks the bittersweet end of the summer season, at which point we look forward to seasons of shorter sunlight, grayer days and colder temperatures, as well as to the fall and winter holidays. This pleasant day of end-of-season sales, barbeques and sporting events, however, was inspired by struggle and tragedy.
Labor Day was originally designated as a national holiday to honor the contributions of workers to our nation, and grew out of a larger movement, stretching over decades. That movement sought to eliminate child labor and sweat shop subjugation, to ensure fair and safe working conditions, and to enable employees to organize and challenge employers that engaged in arbitrary, capricious or abusive labor practices. These efforts were aggressively opposed, especially among employers that operated in oligopolistic or monopolistic industries, or which possessed monopsony power in local labor markets.
Rail was one such industry. The Pullman Strike of 1894 was a labor action to demand fair treatment by the Pullman Company which effectively required employees to live in company-owned and operated towns, and which heavily regulated workers’ lives outside the factory. The strike was violently broken by the intervention of US Marshals and the US Army. During the strike 30 workers were killed, 57 workers were injured, and tens of million of dollars of property was damaged or destroyed.
The deaths and violence so shocked the consciences of the nation’s lawmakers that they rushed through legislation to create a holiday honoring workers in response. The Federal law that established Labor Day as a national holiday was passed unanimously by Congress and signed by President Cleveland just 6 days after the end of the Pullman strike, even though both the general public and economic elites were indifferent or hostile toward labor at that time. In subsequent years and decades, organized labor moved public sentiment and public policy, ending or limiting practices such as child labor and unsafe working conditions.
However, the struggle for labor rights and to constrain the unbridled exercise of monopoly, oligopoly and monopsony power in our economy and our political system continues today. We see it in contemporary battles for a livable minimum wage, against wage theft, against employer exploitation of undocumented immigrants, for universal health insurance to shield citizens from dependence on corporate benefits which can be arbitrarily snatched away, and to reinstate and expand campaign finance reform in order to limit the risk that government officials and public policy can be captured and distorted by the unbridled economic might of a few. Success in these efforts is essential to the ensuring the continued strength our our country and the well being of all our citizens.
The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee wishes all our fellow Ridgefield residents a happy, safe and enjoyable Labor Day weekend.