THE FIRST Labor Day was celebrated in 1882 with a union-organized parade in New York City. The idea was taken up elsewhere, and just 12 years later President Grover Cleveland proclaimed it a federal holiday. It would have been nice to think this act heralded a new era of concord and mutual respect between capital and labor, but it’s more likely that the president was simply trying to deal with the uproar occasioned by the bloody crushing of a strike against the Pullman railroad car company, one of the most notorious conflicts of the time, though far from the only one.
In fact, during the last two decades of the 19th century, there were 37,000 strikes in the United States. And in the years between 1870 and 1914, “somewhere between 500 and 800 American workers were killed during labor stoppages, nearly all by the military, state militias or local police,” according to historian Edward T. O’Connell, who contrasts this toll with those of England (seven dead) and France (35) during the same period.
Workers in this rapidly industrializing country were hard-pressed in a number of ways, some of them familiar to us even today. New technologies were making obsolete certain skills that working people had relied on for a decent living. Those employees who mastered the new manufacturing techniques did well, and consumers benefited from the efficiencies, but many less fortunate men, women and children had to work 70 hours a week and more just to stay alive. The toll of death and injury for working people was horrendous. “Each year between 1880 and 1900, an average of 35,000 industrial workers were killed on the job and another half-million were injured,” notes Mr. O’Connell, who adds: “In coal mining alone, some 50,000 workers died between 1870 and 1914.” And, then as now, immigrants were blamed by many for the country’s economic problems and periodic plunges into depression.
Since then, a century of progressive reforms, labor-management negotiation and, perhaps most important, rising prosperity has pretty much eliminated such things as child labor and the need for military solutions to work stoppages. We still have many problems in this society — poverty, wage stagnation, inequality — but for most Americans this first weekend in September has become a day to relax, burn food on the grill and get ready for the new year of work and school. This Labor Day, however, we are reminded, by the disaster in Texas and the response to it, that this country has a way of pulling together and to some extent setting aside its various conflicts of race, class and economic status in times of trouble, whether hurricane, flood, economic depression or war. In recent days thousands of working people — firefighters, police, and many, many volunteers — have joined with others to save victims of the flooding and give them shelter, often risking — and sometimes losing — their own lives. These are the people to think of this weekend, and the ones whose efforts we should repay with whatever donations of our own that we can make.