The same Labor Day struggles now take place elsewhere

Posted: September 6, 2011 in Labour History
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United States stamp: Labor Day

Image by karen horton via Flickr

Happy Labor Day, U.S. readers!

Labor Day and Industrialisation

Labor Day has been a public commemoration in the United States since 1882. It was made a public holiday in 1894 in a conciliatory gesture by President Cleveland after 13 workers were killed at the hands of National Guardsmen in a large railway strike.

The pace of industrialisation in the USA between 1850 and 1900 was immense. That short period saw electricity, the steam boiler, the telegraph, the telephone, the elevator, the reaper, the sewing machine and canned food brought to the mass market by corporations.

Between 1870 and 1900 America’s railroad network expanded from 53,000 to 193,000 miles of track, while the number of large-scale workplaces expanded from 140,000 mills to 512,000 factories (Beatty, Colossus, p. 127).

This growth of the post-Civil War economy had no counterbalance to corporate power, which was a new phenomenon. Politicians were soundly in the purse of the corporations and trade unions were small and weak.

Even peaceful strikes were put down by state militia or federal troops called out by politicians acting for corporations acting for shareholders. And these were not Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch, with their retirement money invested in 401(k) accounts, but the richest 1 percent of Americans holding more wealth than the other 99 percent (ibid, pp. 128-9).

Eerily familiar. As I am typing this, around the world military force has been used in recent days to suppress labour activists in Fiji, Malawi and Colombia. In 2010 union activists were killed or assassinated in 15 countries around the world, and arrested or imprisoned in 50 and I expect the number to be similar this year.

Business won the day, sort of

The antagonism in nineteenth-century America saw corporations and unions taking up philosophically polarised positions. Military force is not exactly conducive to good relations so the result is unsurprising but still tragic. It didn’t have to be this way. Unions are integrated much more closely and co-operatively into management in countries such as Japan, Germany and Scandanavia. How different the world might be if it had played out differently in the USA. As it turned out though,

The corporation stood for the acquisitive principle, the view that individual gain was the master motive of mankind. The union stood for solidarity, the view that men must stand together to be strong, subsuming their individual in the common interest. If freedom was the maxim of the corporation, fraternity was that of the union. Although freedom is more consonant with the American experience than fraternity, a European import, the corporation has never been able to match the moral appeal of the union. Few men would risk their lives for the corporation; many have given their lives for the union. In the same issue of a business magazine featuring a story about America’s top-paid CEOs, one can also read a story about a union organizing campaign marching under a banner like “Justice for Janitors”. No contest here for the moral high ground. (ibid, p. 168)

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