In which Noah complains about...
To the annual consternation of Luther students, classes were once again in session for Labor Day. While many other institutions – especially educational institutions – and virtually all of Water St. were not open for business on Labor Day, Luther College has made something of a tradition of having classes on the first Monday in September.
The roots of Labor Day lay in several bloody incidents in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, where the same excesses of capitalism and industrialization that had generated so much anger in Victorian England manifested in a series of bloody strikes for worker’s rights and safe working conditions in America. While largely overshadowed in our nation’s bloody fight for organized labor, the Haymarket affair of 1888 and the Pullman Strike of 1896 remain two critical events in the history of Labor Day itself.
On May 4th, 1888, at Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois, seven police officers and four demonstrators were killed and over sixty workers wounded in the aftermath of a bomb blast that occurred as police attempted to break up a general strike for the eight-hour workday. The military crackdown on the Pullman Strike six years later left thirteen railroad workers dead and dozens more wounded. President Grover Cleveland, attempting to conciliate labor leaders and dissasociate the holiday from the far-left movements that celebrated the anniversary of the Haymarket affair on May Day as International Worker’s Day, established Labor Day as the first Monday in September.
As organized labor has seen its role in the public sphere dissolve over the last thirty years, the purpose of Labor Day and its memorial of the sacrifices made by working men and women to ensure safe conditions and fair compensation has similarly fallen from the public consciousness, and the holiday is known best as the unofficial end of summer, commemorated with barbecues, parades and retail sales.
So why has the history of organized labor fallen by the wayside of the national consciousness? Because it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t work in our revisionist national narrative, where America and her glorious capitalist economy defeated the communists, established America as the sole global superpower and allowed trickle-down economics to markedly improve the standards of living for Americans everywhere – despite a panoply of evidence to the contrary.
An era where government institutions were subjugated to corporate power, where captains of industry garnered fabulous weath from the virtual slave labor of the destitute, where men and women died for the right to an eight-hour workday and the very worst excesses of capitalism exploited generations of Americans before being reigned in by socialists, communists and leftist boogeymen exists in direct and irreconcilable opposition to our national myth.
So we ignore it. We offer a token remembrance of the men and women who suffered and died securing safe labor for themselves and for their children by barbecuing and seeing the last summer blockbuster. Or, at Luther, by going to classes and carrying on business as usual.
I don’t have any solutions for this, and it may well be outside the scope of higher education. In fact, it’s probably a subject more appropriate for primary and secondary education, though the labor movement was rarely more than a footnote in my history classes. The tide turned against unions and organized labor in the eighties; it’s unsurprising that we’re among a generation that seems to have largely forgotten about this bloody and shameful era in American history.
But it’s painful to see a memorial to generations of working men and women and the hardships and suffering they endured ignored.