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Labor Day, Unions & Fair Labor Laws


Today we enjoy a 40 hour work week, sick leave, time and half, minimum wage laws and workplace safety laws, among many others.

We hear a great deal about capitalism — which effectively ended when sweat shops were outlawed, minimum wage laws established, child labor prohibited, etc.   While there are some who long for the good old days of pure capitalism, its doubtful many workers are ready to go back to a 72 – 84 hour work week with no overtime or safety laws in place.

Before the laws were changed, the typical workday was 12-14 hours, 6 days a week.  There were no safety laws, children as young as 7 were working for little to no pay in mines, mills, factories, sweatshops, and farms.

There were too many labor movements taking place across the country for years leading up to the legislation that would enact laws establishing these changes to recount them all here.

The most well known are:

Labor’s Great War on the Seattle Waterfront: A History of the 1934 Longshore Strike (Seattle’s portion of this West Coast strike is featured in this article.)

The Triangle Factory Fire

Mayday, 1886: The Eight-Hour Movement – Unfortunately, the Haymarket Tragedy ended this movement for a considerable amount of time.

For a history of strikes and unions in Washington State, I highly recommend this site: The Great Depression in Washington State

People died to obtain fair wages, and safe working conditions.  Others were brutally beaten.  Many lost their jobs.  Millions protested.

As organized labor grew, many were responsible for pursuing state Labor Day holidays throughout the country.  In 1894, following the killing of many strikers by US military and US Marshalls during the Pullman Strike, President Cleveland and Congress rushed through legislation making Labor Day a national holiday, in an attempt to reconcile with the labor movement.

Prior to the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, several other memorable strikes took place:

The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike Against GM 1936-37

May 26, 1937 – The Battle of the Overpass: United Auto Workers bloody confrontation with Ford security forces.

In the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, where Chicago police attacked three hundred men picketing Republic Steel, killing ten and brutally maiming many others.

After a year of Congressional argument, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was signed into law by President Roosevelt.  The law banned oppressive child labor, set the minimum hourly wage at 25 cents, and the maximum workweek at 44 hours.

President Roosevelt stated in his “fireside chat” the night before the signing, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

Child labor, however, did not end until 1949 under Truman.

So thank a union man or woman today – because of their organizations and the grit of their union ancestors, you have the day off.  You have a 40 hour work week, you have a decent wage, and you have sick leave, holiday pay and other benefits…even though you yourself might not belong to a union.  If you want to complain about the unions then, by all means, step up and go to work today for 12-14 hours at whatever your employer would choose to pay you.  Otherwise, be grateful to them.

Happy Labor Day everyone!

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