07 September 2009

Let's keep Labor in Labor Day

And by that I mean an appreciation for labor, both the organized and the casual kind. It's become fashionable to ignore the accomplishments of the Labor Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but every single working adult today owes those brave men and women a tremendous debt. They put their lives on the line to guarantee themselves and their descendants a better life.

The Andrew Carnegies and Henry Clay Fricks of the world left a great legacy and they accomplished great things. However, it was their immigrant labor force and their refusal to be treated like slaves any longer that left a more lasting and widespread mark on our culture. Labor Day was intended to be a day to commemorate those same, unionized workers. This link, from the US Department of Labor, gives a brief explanation of why today is a US holiday.

The American Labor movement has been controversial since its violent birth well over a century ago. The last 30 years of American politics and economic practice have done a thorough job of demonizing organized labor and its history, but it's a lie. It's a campaign of lies actually and it's been unrelenting. But at the end of the day, Exxon and IBM did not come up with the five-day, 40-hour work week out of the goodness of their hearts. Just about every idea you have and I have about work and life balance came about at the insistence of organized labor. Despite what you might think of the AFL-CIO or the UAW, you're still standing on their shoulders. History works like that.

There was some great literature that came out of that era. If you've never read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, or Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives, pick up a copy of either. Or both.

Better yet, pick up a copy of Paul Krause's The Battle for Homestead, 1880-1892. You'll never look at your work life the same way again.

I'll put away my Norma Rae routine for now. I'm seeing clients today, so there's no rest for this American laborer. Whatever you're doing today, I hope it's fun.


  1. I read The Jungle for the first time in 8th grade and probably twice more since. Readers, if you're feeling overworked and bad about your job, pick up that book!

  2. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States of America has a great section on the industrial revolution and what it was like for working folk and how the labor movement came to be. Its harrowing and inspirational at the same time. Highly recommend it.

  3. I was a sophomore in High School in 1980 and The Jungle was summarily dropped from our reading list. To pave the way for the supply-side propaganda to come? Anyhow, I read it on my own and it left an effect on me that's lasted throughout my entire life.

    I have never read Zinn's History Elizabeth, thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Have you every worked in a unionized shop? I have! It's the only time I've had to bribe people to do their jobs and also the only time I've been told I'm making people look bad because I was working too hard.

    Tell how great organized labor is to my husband, who had to fork over part of his paycheck in high school to a union he didn't want to have anything to do with.

    Tell it to my friend whose car was destroyed by union thugs because he wouldn't vote pro-union--or HIS friend who was jumped by the same out-of-town thugs and blinded permanently in one eye.

    I've had a lot of dealings with unions, and I know a lot of people who have had a lot of dealings with unions. They had their place--now they're organized extortionists.

    Guess why the American auto companies are struggling so much? It's not their corrupt CEOs!

    A 40-hour week was the end point of a LONG line of negotiations between workers and employees--of ALL sorts. Interestingly enough, the working hours of city shop assistants (up to 18 hours a day!) and farm workers during summer (daylight hours--which could mean as many as 19 hours a day in British dairies, for instance) were reduced much more dramatically than those for factory workers (hours set by law in Britain to be no more than 12 per day before the 1830s--similar hours in the US). The working hours of domestic servants also declined, no thanks to the unions--from about 16 hours a day, 6.5 days a week, to the same number of hours but 5.5 days per week over the span of perhaps 50 years, from 1830-1880. The first child and women labor laws (which were passed in Britain, again, before the Victorian age) were passed NOT because of unions but because of social activists concerned by the conditions in which the people were living.

    Meanwhile, the "white collar" classes in the mid 19th century generally worked 6 hours a day, 10-4, including a tea or luncheon that was at least an hour long. The unions didn't lengthen their day, either.

    An honest history of the 19th century would reveal that organized labor acted for the positive protection of workers in a handful of significant cases but did little overall to improve the lives of blue-collar workers--no more than it did to lengthen the workdays of white collar workers. This is true despite the historical revisionism that the unions constantly engage in.

    (Victorian history is my specialty.)

  5. Astrophil, Astrophil, Astrophil, the social activists of the 19th century you're invoking made up the early labor movement. Shortened workweeks in steel mills and textile factories did not come about out of some kind of an kindness on the part of the executives of the day. Conditions for workers improved because they were forced to improve. No contemporary anecdote can make that not be true.

    Part of what makes history so challenging is that serious study of it requires that history students leave their contemporary sensibilities behind when they delve into it. To claim that a 40-hour workweek is not the achievement of the labor movement is as absurd as my highly-educated nieces' claims that they owe nothing to feminism.


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