Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, when it was rushed through Congress six days after the end of the Pullman Strike during which federal troops killed 13 strikers and injured 57 more after a wildcat strike of railroad car builders turned into a sympathy strike involving 250,000 workers. President Grover Cleveland realized that he had to mend fences with the nascentl labor movement… he didn’t fear political retribution as much as actual violence and revolution. As part of that effort, a day was enshrined in the national calender of the United States, putting the recognition of the Working Man on par with the Founding Fathers and War Heroes.
This was at the beginning of the rise of America as an industrial power… the exploitation of workers occurred mainly in factories. The all-male workforce held jobs for life in towns where local companies were ingrained within the fabric of the community. While conditions were difficult, workers soon found that if they stuck together, they could force changes that bettered their lives and the lives of their fellow workers. Weekends, child labor laws, the 40-hour work week… these and many other advances were a direct result of unionization.
Inevitably, the power that got unions results eventually turned into bureaucracy and corruption. Not that it mattered… generations of shortsighted politicians and businessmen sent America’s industrial base to the lowest bidder. The blue-collar workforce didn’t go away… it just moved into lower-paying, less-secure, non-unionized service and retail jobs. No longer were they working side-by-side all day, allowing the relationships that held the labor movement together to form. They were sold the idea that “freedom of movement” was preferable to “paternalism”. Unions were demonized and corporations idealized.
And now they are forced to work on the day that in more hopeful times was set aside in their honor. So as you enjoy your day off by going out to brunch or hitting the mall for a local sale, realize that the person helping you is being exploited on the very day that was set aside because their predecessors dared to organize and exercise their power.