Labor Has Always Had to Fight

It amazes me how cyclical is history. We tend to think that what we are experiencing at any given time as unique, but nothing, as “The Preacher” in the Book of Ecclesiastes says, is “new under the sun.”

I am speaking of the horrendous condition of our economy, the attack on labor, which includes a reluctance to pay working people their just due.

The year was 1893; the event was the Chicago World’s Fair. The fair was touted as the most amazing event of its kind, ever, outdoing the Paris Exposition, but the battle between labor and corporations was alive and well. The economy was horrid; banks were closing all over the country and the unemployment rate was embarrassingly high, but at the site of the World’s Fair, under construction, there were plenty of jobs.

The movers and shakers of the project wanted to get as much as they could for as little money as possible. That is normal. But labor protested. Because of the short time the project had to be completed, many workers were needed, and they were needed to work for long hours. People came to Chicago, and came from within Chicago, to find work and they got it.

Still, the unemployment rate nationally was abysmal, and activists warned that if Congress didn’t act, and act soon, there would be riots that would be uncontainable. Such riots took place even in Chicago, where because of the Fair, there was more work than anywhere else.

In August of that year, about 25,000 unemployed people stormed downtown Chicago. They resented Fair jobs being given to non-union people. Erik Larsen, author of The Devil in the White City records their frustration. He writes that their protests came through the voice of Samuel Gompers, who said, “Why should the wealth of the country be stored in banks and elevators while the idle workman wanders about homeless about the streets and the idle loafers who hoard the gold only to spend it in riotous living are rolling about in fine carriages from which they look out on peaceful meetings and call them riots?”

Labor had to fight, and did so until the rights of workers were assured. Employees were paid a decent wage and employers had to honor eight hour shifts and pay overtime when it had been earned. None of the banks or corporations wanted to give in, but the reputation of the United States was at stake and there wasn’t enough time to quibble.

Perhaps we have too much time now. Legislatures are quibbling, and wanting to bring the ax down on working, union people. It seems to be a sorely misplaced agenda, as the nation struggles with horrible unemployment. Labor is again fighting for its life. In Ohio, there is an issue that will be on the November ballot to repeal SB 5, which eats away at gains made over the years for workers. Similar legislation is popping up all over the place. Good jobs are being outsourced while Americans are fighting for their very survival.

Larsen says in his book that Gompers was calling for a “fundamental change in the relationship between workers and their overseers.” That, says Larsen, was “dangerous talk to be suppressed at all costs.” Labor didn’t back down, though, and it’s my hope that labor won’t back down now, either.

We’ve really come too far as a nation to be willing to step so far backwards.

That’s a candid observation.

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