It is Monday, 5 September 2016, and it is the final day in the three-day weekend known as Labour Day Weekend! I hope everyone is having a safe and fun holiday! I wanted to write a post about Labour Day, but something more than the “when, what, why, where and how” facts that we are all familiar with, and if you aren’t, you can find out everything you need to know on Wikipedia. I was trolling through the substrata of the internet when I came across something that reminded me of something else, and … well, you all know how my mind gets lost in the catacombs by now. Anyway, in thinking about Labour Day, I thought it would be more interesting to make some comparisons.
This year, in the midst of a highly divisive election year, jobs, worker’s rights, labour unions and the like are playing a predominant role, and are much in the limelight. One side would like to do away with labour unions altogether, while the other side supports enhanced rights for workers, including pay and safety. Granted, these are serious considerations that need to be addressed, but let us take a brief stroll back in time …
In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.
The date is 25 March 1911. The place is New York City, the Asch Building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in Manhattan. The top three floors are owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris and are home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Ring any bells? It was what was known in the day as a “sweat shop”, a place where young women, many of them immigrants, many teenagers, worked at sewing machines for 9-12 hours a day, six days a week. There were no sprinklers in the factory, no fire alarms, and the doors to the roof and outside were kept locked to prevent theft and keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks. When fire broke out, it consumed the factory within 18 minutes, as there were scraps of fabric everywhere. Many workers were unable to escape and of the 600 workers in the building, 146 would die, many by jumping to their deaths from windows. They ranged in age from 14 to 43 years, and six of the victims were only identified in 2011.
The worker’s union set up a march on April 5 on New York’s Fifth Avenue to protest the conditions that had led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people. Despite a good deal of evidence that the owners and management had been horribly negligent in the fire, a grand jury failed to indict them on manslaughter charges. Still, the massacre for which they were responsible did finally compel the city to enact reform. In addition to the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed that October, the New York Democrats took up the cause of the worker and became known as a reform party. Both were crucial in preventing similar disasters in the future.
Labour Day is not unique to the United States. Many nations celebrate International Worker’s Day, sometimes known as May Day, on May 1st. International Worker’s Day is controversial in the U.S. … some see it as a day celebrated mainly by Socialists and Communists, though our blogger-friend Erik Hare (Barataria) aptly believes the reason the U.S. celebrates Labour Day in September is to distance the holiday from the Haymarket riots of 1886.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was just one of many incidents that led to the rise of labour unions, government oversight committees to regulate safety, working conditions, child labour laws, minimum wage rates and more. Labour Day is a celebration of and for workers, but more, it is a commemoration of those who went before us, often risking their lives to ensure that future generations of workers would have better, safer conditions. So, while you’re watching fireworks, munching a burger and sipping a beer this evening, take just a minute to remember the founders of this day, workers and labour unions, and to appreciate the legacy they have left us.
Happy Labour Day! And since it is Monday, here are a few timely cartoons to help you celebrate with a chuckle. (The title language, by the way, is Catalan)