On Labor Day: when a time when it is popular to blame union contracts for the economy problems, it is instructive to remember how it was. Labor Day Born as an Apology to American Labor.

 

WPCNR NEWS AND COMMENT. By John F. Bailey. September 1, 2014:

It is Labor Day 2014.

A time when the White Plains Board of Education continues its labor dispute with the White Plains Teachers Association (in its third year without a contract). The Board continues to insist stubbornly on cutting the rate of step raise increases and longevity increases: a demand that the union has rejected three times.

Teachers throughout the state continue to be under fire for not teaching effectively. Teacher union leaders, protest against calls for change and possible elimination of tenure. Yet corporate and bureaucratic advocates of the Common Core are not held accountable for the inexplicable test results that show 70% of New York State students are unable to read or write English entering high school. It cannot be all the teachers’ faults. Perhaps it is a lousy assessment test. Don’t our state senators and assemblypersons and hands-on governor want to find out what the problem is?

It is a time when the City of White Plains continues its standoff with the White Plains Police Benevolent Association, continuing its stand to keep pay increases at 2%, and stubbornly clinging to the 8-hour work shift for patrols despite its almost doubling of police overtime costs while continuing to demand all city unions pay more of their medical benefits. This is particularly hypocritical on the part of the city because pay increases for City Commissioners and managers pay for the increased share of medical benefits city commissioners and managers have had to pay. Police sources say they expect to start negotiating with the city again shortly over the work rules at least and the other city unions stymied by city threat of layoffs if they do not cowtow have to get up and muster some back bone.

The city has plenty of money as sales tax receipts are at an all-time high. The property taxes appear to stabilize (unless of course the patriotic commercial property owners file for a new round of tax refunds based on the lean times of the last four years, which would lower the assessment roll.)

Public enmity against unions is popular, especially the practice of jacking pensions by getting more overtime in the years just before retirements. I say it’s time to look at the city leadership and the state leadership and hold them accountable. They are the leaders and they do not lead.

No politicians, though talk about the offensive practice  of decrying  union pensions, while accepting political jobs after a politician leaves office  or is defeated, that politicians and political parasites have to get waivers for to retain their pensions, and they are routinely able to acquire such waivers to get 6-figure jobs in the private or public sector and still collect their pension. How about stopping that very nice perk?

However, when you look back at the history of the labor movement. Workers have always had to fight and die to make progress. Because management is not fair, equitable, or humane.Management works for themselves, always.

Labor Day first made its appearance when low wages and long hours were protested against in the mid-nineteenth century during the American Industrial Revolution.  Oregon instituted the first Labor Day in the 1870s, and New York in the 1880s.

The National Labor Day Holiday came about because of national outrage over two violent strikes that were ended by armed intervention.

It was a time when the so-called robber barons thought nothing of bringing out private security forces to shoot strikers. They  lowered wages with no mercy. It was all about them.

In the Homestead Pennsylvania steel factory strike in 1892, Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron, wanted to lower wages to make the Homestead factory  more profitable. Steelworkers there made $10 a week, working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, as much as  84 hours a week. His Deputy  Chairman Henry Frick wanted to pay them less, and attempted to bring in non-union laborers to replace them.

The union workers, some 2,000 barricaded the plant. Frick hired Pinkerton Detectives to disperse them. On June 29, 1892, “Pinkertons”killed 7 union workers with gunfire, and injured “countless” others and three Pinkertons were killed. The Illinois Governor called in the National Guard to restore order. The armed intervention broke the Amalgamated Association union. After this, according to Steelworkers in America by David Brody, wages of steelworkers at Homestread declined 20% from 1892 to 1907 and workshifts went up from 8 hours to 12 hours (96 hours a week).  What a great fellow, Carnegie. He’d fit right in with today’s Wolves of Wall Street, wouldn’t he?

This union-killing was followed by the 1894 Pullman Strike in Pullman Illinois. George M. Pullman, the creator of the sleeper car, housed his workers in Pullman City, Illinois, and charged them rent. In the depression of the early 1890s, in 1893 wages at the Pullman Palace Factory fell  25%, but Pullman did not lower his rents to his workers. The rent, if not met, was deducted from worker pay. A nice guy, George Pullman.  He could run a bank today, couldn’t he?

On May 11, 1894 workers with the American Railroad Union under the leadership of Eugene Debs, started a wildcat (unauthorized) strike in protest. On June 26, 1894, ARU members refused to service trains with Pullman Cars in their consist, to leave Chicago, delaying the U.S. Mail. Twenty-four railroads in an organization called the General Managers Association announced that any switchman who refused to move rail cars would be fired.

Mr. Debs and his union stood their ground. Debs said if any switchman was fired for not moving Pullman Cars, the union would walk off their jobs. On June 29, 50,000 union men quit.

Union supporters topped trains on rails West of Chicago.

President Grover Cleveland was asked by the railroads to use federal troops to stop the strike.

Railroad management began characterizing the union as violent and lawless, calling Debs “a radical.”

When Debs went to Blue Island, to ask railroad workers there to support the strike, rioting broke out, tracks were torn up. Railroad cars were burned.

The Attorney General of the United States Richard Olney, at the urging of the railroad owners, obtained an injunction July 2 that declared the strike illegal.

When Debs’ union members did not return to work, President Cleveland sent federal troops into Chicago. Strikers stopped trains, destroyed switches and burned railroad cars. Troops opened fire on strikers  attempting to stop a train traveling through downtown Chicago. Debs and his union leaders were arrested for disrupting the delivery of mail. Twenty-six civilians were killed.

Debs stopped the strike. He was sentenced to six months in jail and the union was disbanded.  A number of railroad workers were black listed and could not get a job on a railroad in the United States.

It was the first time federal troops were used to break up a strike. Pullman workers were forced to sign a pledge they would never strike again. The threat of the federal government stopping strikes lead to an end of strikes for at least 8 years.

President Cleveland, though, was facing reelection in 1894. Union leaders and citizens were alarmed at his handling of the strike.

As PBS put it in a documentary in 2001: “But now, protests against President Cleveland’s harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation’s workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland’s desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.

1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born. William Jenning Bryant ran for the Democratic Party and the Populist Party in 1896, losing to  Republican William McKinley.”

Then came a sea change in the great coal strike of 1902, when another “exemplary” capitalist J. P. Morgan fought the coal workers.

It happened in the coal fields of Easton, Pennsylvania, when the United Mine Workers headed by John Mitchell struck the coal operators  pushing for an 8-hour day. The coal operators employed private police and the Pennsylvania National Guard to protect non-union workers. President Theodore Roosevelt summoned the parties to the White House to bring settlement of the dispute by arbitration. After 6 months, the coal miners won a 9-hour day and a 10% increase in wages.

T.R.’s personal intervention lead to Selig Perlman, economist and labor historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, saying “this was perhaps the first time in history a labor organization tied up for months a strategic industry without being condemned as a revolutionary menace.’

The 1902 leadership of Teddy Roosevelt resulted in elimination of private police forces long used  by management to combat workers, when Governor Samuel Pennypacker became Governor of Pennsylvania. He created the Pennsylvania State Police in 1903, the first in the nation to supplant the independent organizations hired by management that were little more than strong-arm men.

The lesson of Labor Day is to remember the bravery of the union leaders who put their members first, did not make deals, did not sell out their members, and held out for the good against managements that were neither kind, humane, fair, or appreciative of their workers’ contribution to their corporate success.

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