What does “labor” even mean in America any more?
“Labor” is a strange word in American politics these days, a kind of vestigial holdover. We still have a Department of Labor, a Labor Secretary, and Labor Day, but most people don’t seem to remember why. The idea that the interests of working people should, or even can, be considered isn’t part of our current political discourse. If you read old political writing, editorials and satires and debates from just a few decades ago, “labor” is a word that comes up a lot, always as an important national interest. Nowadays, not so much.
Paul Krugman has a good post up about where Labor Day comes from, a hasty apology for the government sending military force against its own citizens for protesting their own exploitation.
Here’s how it happened: In 1894 Pullman workers, facing wage cuts in the wake of a financial crisis, went on strike — and Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 soldiers to break the union. He succeeded, but using armed force to protect the interests of property was so blatant that even the Gilded Age was shocked. So Congress, in a lame attempt at appeasement, unanimously passed legislation symbolically honoring the nation’s workers.
It’s even worse than he describes: the Pullman Strike was a nationwide expression of solidarity for the employees of the Pullman company, who were being exploited and abused in an almost cartoonish fashion. Dozens of people were killed and wounded due to anti-strike violence, as the government essentially panicked at the sight of the power regular working Americans could bring to bear if they united. The object of the strikebreaking was to wreck the burgeoning union movement and ensure the unchallenged power of the robber barons, and it worked, in the short term.
Unions would bounce back, and at their height in the 1950s, almost half of all American workers were unionized. That peak coincided with the largest, longest economic boom in human history, but you won’t hear anyone in Washington remind people of that fact. Indeed, it’s Krugman’s larger point that is most revealing about how broken our national understanding of labor has become:
…what’s unimaginable now is that Congress would unanimously offer even an empty gesture of support for workers’ dignity. For the fact is that many of today’s politicians can’t even bring themselves to fake respect for ordinary working Americans.
This Labor Day, ask yourself where the ideas you take for granted as normal came from, and whether they’re worth keeping.