How’s that for a headline grabber? Strong to quite strong, I’d say. But crazily enough, it’s not an overstep to characterize the events leading up to the 1894 legislation making Labor Day a federal holiday as, well, an absolute bloody mess.
History is great that way, really. As we currently trudge through what many characterize as the worst time period in the annals of the United States, we can always be reminded of times that were much, much darker. Take the late 1800’s for instance. Not only did the country suffer through the deadliest war in our history, we were also faced with the growing pains of a changing world. The Industrial Revolution was reaching its peak and the weight of this change was squarely on the backs of the American worker. And for them, it s-s-s-s-s-uuuuuucked.
It was common for the average worker to put in 12-hour days, seven days a week, many times in working conditions that were unsafe, unsanitary, almost inhumane. Child labor was prevalent, with kids as young as five years old working in mills and mines ~ try to convey that reality to your current children if you can distract them from their iPhone. Business owners could be totalitarian and cruel, treating laborers as expendable, interchangeable parts.
You want a statistic that illustrates the ridiculous nature of this era? The average life expectancy in 1860 was 39.4 years. That’s precisely HALF of our current life expectancy.
The time was ripe for change. Unions became the catalyst for giving workers a voice and an organized front. But the fight for worker’s rights would not come easily. In the years leading up to President Grover Cleveland signing the legislation making Labor Day a federal holiday, violent battles between management, law enforcement, politicians and the working man would literally blow up into a national tragedy.
The Haymaker Incident, The Homestead Strike, and The Pullman Railway Strike – deadly conflicts that would precede a day to celebrate the working man (and woman).
So get your ears on and listen to this special Labor Day edition of HR Hardball.