Monday is, of course, Labor Day. Similar to but distinct from the May 1st International Workers’ Day celebrated in many other nations, here is what our very own Department of (Organized) Labor has to say about it:
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
Well, now. There is no federal holiday celebrating the other three factors of production because land, capital and entrepreneurship don’t vote. Labor Day, born in the aftermath of the Pullman Strike of 1894 and President Grover Cleveland’s unconstitutional deployment of federal troops to Chicago to end the strike, today primarily marks the end of summer in the United States. To be sure, there will also be paeans by politicians to the nobility of labor, mostly of the organized variety; but most Americans, even labor union members, will focus more on cookouts, the Labor Day sales and the beginning of the football season than the condition, past or present, of the labor movement.
The Pullman strike was a wildcat strike, that is a strike undertaken without permission of the employees’ union, and was precipitated by the Pullman railroad car company cutting wages as demand for their products fell as a result of the Panic of 1893. (Yes, Virginia, the U.S. economy has experienced many severe recessions before and has recovered from every one of them, federal intervention or no federal intervention.) George Pullman refused to negotiate with the striking workers whose umbrella American Railway Union (led by Eugene V. Debs) then boycotted all trains carrying Pullman cars and threatened a nationwide strike if the boycotting railroad employees were disciplined.
As is always the case in historical matters, the devil is in the details. I’m no historian (indeed, I’m relying largely on the omniscient Wikipedia as my primary source here), but several of the details of the Pullman Strike are particularly intriguing to me.
Fears of incipient feudalism, or something somehow somewhat like it, have been expressed by readers here recently. Arguably, there have been cases in American history where local economies evinced some of the indicia of feudalism, especially including post Civil War sharecropping, isolated mining company towns and, indeed, Pullman, Illinois in 1893. Today merely a neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, the original and now historic Pullman:
… was built in the 1880s by George Pullman for his eponymous railroad car company, the Pullman Palace Car Company. Pullman’s architect Solon Spencer Beman was said to be so proud of his creation that he asked George Pullman if the neighborhood could be named for himself. Pullman responded to the effect, “Sure, we’ll take the first half of my name, and the second half of yours.”
In a day when most workers lived in shabby tenements near their factories, Pullman seemed a dream, winning awards as “the world’s most perfect town.” Everything, from stores to townhouses, were owned by the Company. The design was pleasing, and all of the workers’ needs were met within the neighborhood. The houses were comfortable by standards of the day, and contained such amenities as indoor plumbing, gas, and sewers.
Another way of saying that “all of the workers’ needs were met” is to say that Pullman owned all the land, buildings, stores, etc. and required as a condition of employment that his workers live and do all their shopping there. So, on the one hand, while times were prosperous at the height of the Gilded Age Pullman’s employees were better off than factory workers in general.. On the other hand, when Pullman began to cut their wages – I presume in response to the economic downturn and not merely to make himself richer because the man was obscenely rich already – they were, in a sense, trapped.
But only in a sense. I don’t mean to discount or diminish the fact that such employees, like sharecroppers and coal miners elsewhere, typically had few alternatives. In fact, in cases where management extended credit to such workers, the result was often a form of debt bondage. But in many if not most cases they did have alternatives, however unpalatable or even frightening they may have been. This is, after all, a nation of immigrants; our ancestors often risked far more than what moving from one part of the nation to another entailed. Even here, in other words, claims of modern feudalism must be seen as hyperbole. There is, I insist, an important difference between having risky alternatives and having no alternatives.
The second intriguing aspect of the story is how, largely through manipulation by Pullman, himself, the federal government intervened. First, and ironically, the recently (and improvidently) enacted Sherman Anti-Trust Act was invoked to gain an injunction against the ARU as a “business combination” restraining interstate commerce. Second, because Pullman cars were often part of the rolling stock of trains also carrying U.S. mail cars, President Cleveland ordered 20,000 federal troops to crush the strike and run the trains. In short, big business employed big government to the detriment of fairly biggish labor. Labor Day became a federal holiday shortly after the Pullman Strike, as Cleveland sought in that election year to reconcile with labor (read: voters) as a matter of even handedness (read: political expediency). Debs, by the way, even though defended by Clarence Darrow, ended up spending six months in prison where he found enough free time to read Karl Marx. Pullman died two years later.
I have nothing against federal holidays, especially insofar as they give the federal government one fewer day to do mischief. It is worth noting, however, that mere labor does not create wealth (yes, those other three factors are required and, yes, Locke was wrong) and also that the history of labor relations is not a history of good guys and bad guys. The American Railway Union, for example, was segregated – well, one function of unions is, after all, to keep the ‘wrong sort of people’ from entering the trade – and many of the replacement workers during the strike, aka strikebreakers, aka scabs, were African Americans seizing an opportunity that would have otherwise been closed to them. Arguably, organized labor has at least as much if not more of a history of racial discrimination than business.
There are those who believe government is necessary to curb the excesses of both big business and big labor. It is unclear, however, how this differs all that much from, say, selling arms to two rivalrous nations, maintaining a rough “balance of power” between both while further enriching the arms dealer. It may not be a recipe for harmonious labor relationships or even peaceful coexistence between labor and management, but it’s a guaranteed recipe for big government and all the cost and risk that entails.
Happy Labor Day weekend. I’ll take my steak medium rare and, oh yes, what’s the score?