Labor Day is a holiday on the first Monday in September as a celebration of the American labor movement and the contributions workers have made to the strength and prosperity of the United States.
The holiday was first proposed in 1882, by Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York and by Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor.
Following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, Congress unanimously voted to approve legislation that made Labor Day a national holiday and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.
The Pullman Strike was a nationwide labor action that shut down railroads in the summer of 1894.
Nearly 4,000 employees began a wildcat strike when the Pullman Company lowered wages without reducing rents for workers who lived in the “company town” on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois.
The strike pitted the American Railway Union (ARU) against the Pullman Company, the main railroads, and the federal government under Cleveland and Attorney General Richard Olney, a former lawyer for a railroad.
American Railway Union (ARU), workers led by Eugene V. Debs, which supported the factory strike by launching a boycott in which ARU members refused to run trains containing Pullman cars.
Thousands of federal Marshals and some 12,000 US Army troops, commanded by Brigadier General Nelson Miles, took action to break union efforts to shut down the national transportation system.
J. W. Jennings, a Methodist minister in Billings, Montana, compared the Pullman boycott to the Boston Tea Party. During the course of the strike, 30 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded.
Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing workers, coal miners and women lobbied for minimum wages, restrictions on hours of work and child labor,along with rights to engage in collective bargaining.
Labor unions generally ignored government employees because political parties used the patronage system before the arrival of civil service, althought Post Office workers did formed the National Association of Letter Carriers in 1889.
After President John Kennedy upgraded the status of federal worker unions in 1962, public sector unions grew rapidly and secured good wages and high pensions for their members.
Since its peak in the mid-20th century, the American labor movement has been in steady decline, with member losses reflected in the falling standard of living for working people.
In the early 1950s, as the AFL and CIO merged, around a third of the American labor force was unionized; by 2012, the proportion was 11 percent.
As organized labor’s influence in the political process has weakened, wages have stagnated and income inequality has increased.
Unions that once played a major role in funding and supporting the Civil Rights Movement appear unable to rally consumer support for boycotts against greedy billionaires, who are exerting more control over the nation’s public policies.
President Ronald Reagan implemented sweeping initiatives, dubbed “Reaganomics”, that advocated reducing tax rates for the rich and deregulation of the economy, and plunging government deep into debt.
Reagan’s hard line against labor unions escalated the demise of economic conditions for working people and wages have stagnated as a result.
Today’s minimum wage buys a fraction of goods it once did. Today, a full time worker earning minimum wage takes home $15,080 a year.
In his State of the Union Address President Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage to $9 an hour because “in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.”
In 1968, when minimum wage was at it’s highest point ever, a worker would have made the equivalent of $19,245 a year in today’s dollars, roughly a third more.
In 1981, the minimum wage was frozen at $3.35 per hour and it wasn’t bumped up until 1990, by which time it had fallen below the poverty line for families, then from 1997 to 2007, it remained stuck at $5.15 per hour.
Between 2007 and 2010, the federal minimum crept up to $7.25 per hour despite the a continued increase in the cost of living that leaves many single parents who are employed full-time about $3,400 below the federal poverty line for a family of three.
Labor Day in 2014 is less a celebration than a grim reminder that American workers have been pushed into poverty and made to pay for the prosperity of the nation’s richest one percent of the population.
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