Labor Day's political history begins with worker strikes of the 1890s

Even conservatives should recognize liberals and progressives for their role in making the American Dream a reality. Photo: Andrews, E. Benjamin. History of the United States, volume V. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 1912.

OCALA, Fla., September 2, 2013 — Labor Day has fallen upon us once again.

For most Americans, this means little more than the end of the summer social season. Kids and college students alike return to school, leaving relieved parents to grasp some sense of normalcy.


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Cookouts flare on and friends get together for cool drinks after some outdoor fun.

Amid all of the action, everyone seems to forget what Labor Day is all about.

During the late 1800s, labor leaders decided that hardworking Americans deserved a holiday of their own. After 1894’s monumental Pullman Railroad strike, Congress decided to federalize this holiday.

The Pullman strike had such wide-ranging implications that less than a week after it ended, then-President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day into law.


SEE RELATED: The history of Labor Day: Holiday follows major labor strife


Considering that both U.S. soldiers and federal law enforcement officers killed a number of strikers, this was the least that he could do. 

Prior to the organization of labor unions, blue collar workers were subject to gruesome employment. Their jobs in the mines, in the factories, or under the burning sun left them exposed to considerable danger.

Minimum wage laws were a long way off, and if one thinks that health insurance is bad now, it was non existant then. Then there is the Gilded Age’s near-total lack of workplace sanitation and fair pay standards.

Thankfully, scores of long-pressed laborers eventually got together and formed unions. As individuals, they were all but powerless to bring about positive change. In large groups, though, they managed to secure the American Dream not only for themselves, but generations to come.

Throughout the twentieth century, Democrats typically favored the interests of non-managerial workers, while Republicans catered to administrators and business owners.

Radicals in both parties often destroyed the chance for reasonable solutions to complex financial problems, but moderate voices often prevailed.

That should explain our country’s economic success for most of the 1900s.

As of late, however, the Democratic mainstream has grown to favor illegal immigration, which is sure to not only generate competition for already scarce jobs, but drive down wages.

The Republican mainstream, on the other hand, typically stands against illegal immigration, but favors measures like the privatization of Social Security and cracking down on a worker’s right to organize.

In short, the American worker has very few true friends in politics these days, and the list is getting shorter all the time.

More than anything else, this is what we should consider on Labor Day. We ought to remember that it was the best of liberal and progressive traditions which brought us Labor Day in the first place. 

Of course, like any other political schools of thought, liberalism and progressivism will cause major disturbances if allowed to run unchecked. Still, this does not negate the fantastic impact that each philosophy had on improving the lives of average Americans.

Irrespective of our personal views, we ought to hold the liberals and progressives of yesteryear in high regard. After all, if it were not for them, then America would never have become the world’s beacon of prosperity.

The hardworking conservatives of today wouldn’t have a day off, either. As a matter of fact, they’d be so busy — along with the overwhelming majority of us — toiling away in some mine, plant, or field that there would be no real time for leisure.

A sober realization such as this should put Labor Day into an entirely different, and far more enriching, perspective.


Far-left? Far-right? Get realRead more from “The Conscience of a Realist” by Joseph F. Cotto 





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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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