In the summer of 1894, 4,000 employees of the Pullman Co. went on a wildcat strike because their wages had been suddenly cut during an economic downturn and the company refused to drop the rent on their company housing to compensate for it.
President Grover Cleveland called in 12,000 federal troops. Things turned bloody; 37 strikers were killed.
The times were confusing. Other established unions did not support the strikers but the use of federal troops against the workers was a flash point. All involved in breaking the strike faced a political backlash. Within six days of the end of the strike, Cleveland and Congress found their solution — honoring workers generally by creating a new federal holiday called Labor Day.
Still, it was just a day. There had been bloody battles before and there would be many to come with little else to be expected in a system that treated workers like just so much raw material, expendable, to be had at the cheapest price possible.
Men worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week, swinging from daylight to night turn every week or two, which meant working 24 hours straight when making the turn. Deaths and disabling accidents were a daily occurrence in the mills and factories. A man who had been used up either left a widow or found the bottle.
In time, those battles at the factory gates and in the rail yards began to make a difference, providing a level playing field, a decent shot for all. Fair wages and benefits and safe working conditions became the norm. Children went to college, families moved into new homes and neighborhoods, and dreams came true.
Labor Day, once just a bone that was thrown to some broken and bloodied workers to placate them, finally began to stand for something. It became the day to celebrate American workers and their economic and social contributions to the nation, many of which we now take for granted.
Those two days off every week, often called the weekend, are a creation of organized labor. Paid vacations, holiday pay and sick days are, too. The minimum wage, overtime pay, and workers' and unemployment compensation have all been created through the efforts of unions.
The 40-hour workweek, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Social Security, child labor laws and pensions are all the result of labor unions' hard work. And everybody benefits, anti-union workers as well — even ingrates.
As with all human institutions, success sometimes brought excess. But all the sneers of the anti-unionists cannot change the fact that labor built and protected the great American middle class. And as unionization has declined, who now has the bargaining power to do that?
Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).