In the year of grace 1894, children worked 60-hour weeks in factories; it would be another decade before they would strike in Philadelphia, asking for 55-hour weeks and a chance to go to school. Coal miners working the great, rich anthracite seams were still paid not in money but in company scrip. And for weekly wages of about $2.50, gandy dancers, the lowliest railroad laborers--my great-uncle Charles was one--were being killed on the job at the rate of a half-dozen a day.
In that calamitous year, after a financial house of cards collapsed, wiping out banks and businesses and ushering in recession . . . after a decade of protests and strikes by workers who saw jobs and wages shrivel up and vanish, President Cleveland declared the first Monday of September as Labor Day.
I note this in case you may have thought that the imminent holiday weekend was consecrated to packing up your white shoes until next spring and cranking up the barbecue for one last conflagration.
It's an unlovely do-si-do that business has danced with workers in this country: harrowing exploitation and repressive laws countered finally with strikes and sometimes violence. Changes--the eight-hour day, the five-day week, safety inspectors, workers' comp --were hard-won and hard-conceded.
A century and some change after the first Labor Day, organized labor, besmirched by the boss politics of the Hoffa ilk, is still struggling--this time with a reputation for being as arrogant and power hungry as the moneybag bosses it mocked. Union membership is as low at century's end as it was high near its beginning. One hears the phrase "labor troubles," never "management troubles." And courts have been doing some unions' work, settling issues of age discrimination, promotion, harassment.
And yet, last year's UPS strike put labor on our radar again; those nice young men and women with sturdy calves and pleasant smiles who came by your office every day surely weren't an enemy.
At UC Irvine, graduate students, who so often carry the undergraduate teaching load at public universities, are unionizing over pay, workload and benefits.
A Koreatown waitress defied culture and her own tearful mother over illegally low wages, suing her Korean employers, who "thought we would keep quiet."
Across California, companies that have promoted worker bees to "exempt manager" status, allegedly to avoid paying for overtime, are finding themselves on the process server end of lawsuits. Agency Rent-A-Car paid to settle a suit by "managers" who in fact washed and delivered cars. Some Taco Bell store "managers" say 70% of their time is taken up by making burritos and washing dishes--not directing other workers and having a hand in hiring and firing, as the law requires.
When the day came that I brought home a bigger paycheck than my father ever did, I never told him so. I couldn't; the man climbed electric poles for nearly 40 years, laboring in subzero and three-digit weather, risking his life among the wires where so many of his friends lost theirs.
It bothers me still that I earn more money by thinking and writing and talking than he ever did by that immense and perilous exertion of energy and muscle . . . that right here, in my own family, is the economic model and the quandary of the new, global information age.
We are feeling our way in this world of multiple careers, part-time jobs, where nothing is constant but change and this: Jobs tend to follow cheaper labor. The textile factories of 19th century New England moved to the 20th century South, and now to 21st century Mexico, which complains of even cheaper labor in Asia siphoning away jobs.
Labor moves north, too, illegal and underpaid, winked at for the sake of 99-cent romaine lettuce and $200-a-week nannies. It was Cesar Chavez's great quandary, illegal immigration: How could a union form and hold its ranks and its demands if the next truck north from Mexico always brought other men willing to work longer hours for cheaper wages?
Curious how the most successful unions today are the richest: the Hollywood unions, the pro athletes' unions. A smart union on a membership drive among the young--like the teenage workers who struck a McDonald's in Ohio--would already have Mr. DiCaprio on billboards, holding up his SAG card and announcing fetchingly, "I'm Leo. I'm union."
Patt Morrison's column appears Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is email@example.com