top of page

GTBT: Labor Day

Note: In honor of the holiday, please enjoy this "bonus" lecture, which is in no way a call to arms against the brutal taskmaster who owns this internet publication. No, no, I would never dream of such a thing. Although together we could clearly bring down the tyrant. We have the power, boys! He can't keep us down forever! Support the Brotherhood of Bloggers, Local 412!

Gather round, you hearty jacks! Got a proposition for all doughty fellows among you. The big-whigs over Albany-way are wanting a ditch dug between Ontario and the Hudson. Never mind why exactly, but there’s need for rough hands and strong backs a-plenty. Now, what say you to a nickel a day in wages? What, no takers? None? Not a one?

Then let me ask you this. Who’s up for laying track in sunny Kansas? You’ll be working for Union Pacific, my lads! Pay's two bits a week. No? Alright, any of you have experience at sea? The Barbary Jane is outbound to China tomorrow. Has need of stokers and able seamen. Who’ll put their names down? No? Not that either? Well, how about a dam in California? Construction in Cincinnati? Driving cattle in Amarillo? Lathing in New Haven?

My God, what’s a matter with you crooked lay-a-bouts? Don’t you know there’s good pay to be had! Where are your stones, boys? Where are your goddamn stones!

Now, I’m sure you hip “with-it” youngsters can spot a bit of sarcasm there, but in a larger sense, I’m perfectly sincere. Where in God’s name are your balls? Don’t give me any of that modern-day bullshit about benefits and retirement and whatever-else. A real man works his ass off until he’s useless, then he dies, and gets out of the way for his children.

As far as I’m concerned the maximum age for a man is 60. No more, no less. Women can live as long as they want. That’s not my business. I’m talking about MEN. What good is life past 60 anyhow? You tell me. I mean, unless you happen to be a disgraced history professor with a newfound audience in the world of internet publishing. Then, by all means, persist!

The point I’m getting at is that the worth of a man, throughout history and across the globe, has been closely tied to his labor. Your average working man understands this implicitly and has no complaints in life. But there do come times when “outside agitators” disrupt this happy condition - filling the heads of otherwise content laborers with talk of “safety codes” and “wage improvements” and all manner of hokum-smokum balderdash.

Let me tell you a little about what that looks like. Let me tell you the story of labor in America.

America began as a nation of farmers. Here and there, to be sure, was the occasional weaver or shoemaker, and by the time of the Revolution the wharves of Boston and New York were teeming with a thriving merchant marine, but there was very little whatsoever of what was then known as manufactures.

What little industry there was sat clustered along a handful of New England rivers. But after the Almighty, in his great wisdom, delivered America its Independence from Great Britain, a spark was struck across the well-ordered countrysides of Connecticut and Massachusetts. From their sleepy hamlets, a seemingly endless supply of fusty ingenious Yankees poured out across the land, radically transforming it before the very ink on the Constitution had begun to dry.

Jefferson and Madison could speak all they like about a nation of yeomen, secured by their arms on small homesteads from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, but it was Hamilton all along who spotted the real genius of the American people. We were to become a commercial people, a trading people, a building people, a dogged and daring, yank-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, go-out-and-get-it kind of people, where a man could go from rags to riches before he could blink, and back down to rags in less than half that time.

From its first pitiful textile mills, American industry spread with the strides of a giant. It cut canals across the impenetrable wilderness, felled ancient woodland, drained immense swamps, and bound the whole thing up by an ungodly number of railroads. Factories sprung up like daisies, and soon a river of goods and commodities were flowing hither and thither across the land, from the towering warehouses of Philadelphia, to the belching furnaces of Pittsburgh, to the sprawling assembly plants of Detroit and beyond.

The scale and speed of this transformation was unlike anything to come before. Any man with half a brain (and a pair of balls) could find something to do. Livelihoods were gained, families were established, and some men found they had reaped fortunes without parallel in history.

Yet all these marvels incurred a cost, and at times, a very tragic and heart-breaking one. It was a cost paid, in the main, by the men who did the digging, the mining, the smelting, the back-breaking and very often life-shortening work of building a nation. It was also paid by the women, weaving or sewing in the new factories, or who watched their menfolk go bent or crippled to the end of their days. It was paid, in some cases, by their own children.

America was then a young and heedless nation, still uncritically devoted to her founding principles of individual liberty and limited government, completely secure in her belief that nothing would ever require these principles to be amended, however slightly.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, it began to dawn upon many Americans that their nation was growing up. Still young and able, no doubt - and yet there appeared the first lines upon the face, the first flashes of self-doubt. America was supposed to be a new sort of nation, a classless nation, a nation in which there were no distinctions between persons of any kind. And yet, within crowding cities and clattering factories, a contradiction was rapidly emerging.

The contradiction had been present from the start - the slaves and Indian tribes would've told you that - but it took on a more obvious aspect in the wake of breakneck industrialization. And it is really only a matter of time before groups of men, united by shared characteristics or economic interests, coalesce into factions. They will eventually - as Marx put it - attain “class consciousness” and submerge some of their identity and their freedom within the murk of group affiliation. No nation, no matter how upwardly mobile, is immune to this.

Of course, this was rank blasphemy to a people weened on notions of individualism and meritocracy. It was especially egregious to the company-men who squared-off against the working-men, many of whom were not more than one generation from being working-men themselves.

All this partly explains why the labor movement in America played-out differently than that in Europe, where class was an ingrained and complex feature. And there is another facet of the American character that crops up again and again: Americans, as a rule, are fairly pragmatic about things.

From the beginning, the aims of American labor unions were simple and straightforward: better working conditions, better pay. There were less likely to be swayed by the Utopian schemes which always seemed to be smuggled into their European counterparts. There was a little of that, to be sure, but the old Yankee mindset of trying to get rich at whatever-it-is you do was by far the main thing. Old habits die hard, I guess.

Growing out of early “secret societies”, such as the Molly Maguires (subject of the greatest film ever made), the early labor unions began by demanding basic measures such as the eight-hour workday and an end to child labor. This would be gradually implemented through a combination of state and federal legislation, strikes, pamphleteering, and the occasional Haymarket Riot – in which someone threw a bomb at the police, the police shot back, and four men were killed.

The thing could get rough. Employers often responded by hiring strikebreakers - and oftentimes these strikebreakers were black workers or immigrants of one kind or another - and then there was blood.

There were divisions within the labor movement too. A major distinction was made between "craft unionism" and "industrial unionism" - the former meant organizing around a particular trade, the latter meant organizing around a particular industry. Whatever the difference, the two sides hated one another and several attempts to bridge the divide ended in failure.

In the late 1800's, the Knights of Labor briefly managed to unite the two sides and emerged as the leading national labor organization – it was the Knights of Labor who actually proposed the first Labor Day – but they were far too honest and scrupulous for their own good. They were swiftly replaced by more corrupt (but more effective) labor organizations such as the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which have largely stuck around to this day.

For a time, the AFL-CIO was as powerful an organization in American life as there has ever been, easily outstripping the money and influence of, say, the Catholic Church. They reached their zenith during the FDR years, only to gradually see their power wane as over-protection of the American worker led to disaster. The businesses up and left, moving manufacturing overseas to countries who frankly who didn't (and still don't) give a damn.

But the damage was done. Labor organizations are nowhere near the behemoths they once were. In certain industries which cannot be shipped overseas, such as construction, trucking, and transportation, unions still pull weight, but as a whole - and with the notable exception of government workers - unions are very much a relic of a bygone era.

To be honest, just about the only strikes I see these days are those of babbling schoolgirls complaining about the planet, or racism, or bad Disney remakes, or whatever. No use arguing with them, fellas. Just say, "Yes, yes, you're right, uh huh," and wait for them to change the subject. And have a joke or a funny story ready to go. Just a word to the wise.

But perhaps the decline of unions is not something altogether to lament. It is true, of course, that men with common interests will band together, but perhaps our social scientists and policy makers make too much hay out of "class".

After all, Americans, at their best, are a gloriously uncomplicated people. We cling tightly to a few simple ideals, often rudely expressed, and shared by rich and poor and everyone in between. We enjoy humble pleasures like barbecues and ball games. We insist our stories have happy endings, and that our art looks like what it’s supposed to look like, and that our music be simple, melodic, and memorable.

We prefer our drinks cold (for some reason). Cold beer, iced coffee, whiskey on rocks - these are our delights. There’s something splendid about the thought that on any given day, just about half the country, from roofers sweating under the sun, to paper-shufflers in air-conditioned offices, to the man in the White House himself all enjoy an ice-cold Coke in the afternoon.

That's the way we are. That's the way we like it. Somewhere deep down, the Jeffersonian tradition still beats in our hearts. I am my own man. This is my little part of the world. I am free.

In the days when the nation was still teething, a travelling German once rode through the Connecticut countryside. He grew annoyed he couldn’t tell apart the farmers from the field-hands, the storekeepers from their clerks, the masters from the apprentices, and so on. It bemused him so badly that around the next bend in the road he accosted the first fellow he met.

“Where are your betters?” he demanded of him. The man looked at him askance for a moment and then replied calmly, “Well, I’m a circuit judge, for one thing. And just who the hell are you?”

Who the hell indeed. That’s all for this week, class.

Do your reading,

James O’Flannery


bottom of page