Most people probably don’t think of Labor Day as a holiday commemorating struggle and death. But that’s what it used to be.
The period between the Civil War and the Great Depression was a time of massive upheaval: The industrial revolution swept in, and millions of Americans were forced to leave their farms and move to cities in search of work in the newly-formed rail, steel, textile, and shipping industries.
Economic policymaking was still ad hoc and primitive. Massive recessions regularly created mass poverty and threw enormous numbers of people out of work. The rules, both legal and social, were still being formed for how employers could treat employees, and how the wealth they all collectively produced would be distributed. Inequality soared to enormous heights by the end of the period. The minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, laws against child labor, and more were only instituted after pitched political combat. Unions were growing as the one avenue by which workers could fight for their interests, and the economy saw waves of regular strikes and work stoppages that would be unheard of today.
Sometimes, the battles were literal: Employers and politicians were not shy about busting unions with police forces and hired enforcers. Riots, deaths, and bombings were not uncommon.
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- Why you should celebrate workers — not unions