The Suitcase Lady


August 27, 2013, 10:59 pm

Labor Day has become the psychological end of summer in America. The original impetus for the holiday is largely  unknown or forgotten. Perhaps Labor Day needs to be revitalized with thoughts on the value of work and workers.

The height of America’s Industrial Revolution occurred in the late 1800’s when factories started to replace farms as the basis of the U.S. economy. Twelve hour days, seven day work weeks, child labor and unsafe working conditions were the norm. In response to the egregious conditions, workers began to organize and march.

The notorious Pullman Strike in the summer of 1894 saw workers protesting severely cut wages and high rents for company owned houses. Starting in the company town of Pullman, Illinois, the protests quickly spread to railroad centers across America. President Grover Cleveland declared the violent strike a federal crime and sent in 12,000 troops. Thirty strikers were killed and fifty-seven were wounded, the union leader, Eugene Debs, was jailed and the union was broken. To appease outraged workers all across the nation, President Cleveland signed the law creating Labor Day as a federal holiday six days after the strike ended.

As a young man, my father worked a six day week in a foundry to save money to get married. He lost it all in the depression when the banks failed. Starting over at a steel company, he joined a union and was roughed up by company thugs when he advocated for a five day work week. But the unions gained strength and the checks and benefits from that steel job enabled my parents to solidly join the middle class. Thanks to a childhood without want, I was able to enter and spend my life as a member of the middle class as well.

But times are changing rapidly, and the future for young Americans is not as rosy as mine. I recently ran across an interview with the gifted writer Walter Mosley, the author of the Easy Rawlins novels. These words from that interview struck me as prescient:

“The change of the century is a challenging moment for the world….The waters are rising while we are dreaming of the stars. We call ourselves social creatures when indeed we are pack animals. We, many of us, say that  we are middle class when in reality we are salt-of -the-earth working-class drones existing at the whim of systems that distribute our life’s blood as so much spare change. These subjects can be addressed in fiction or plays, even in poetry, but now and again the plain talk of nonfiction is preferred.”


2 Comments for this entry

  • eve

    May–I remember so fondly the Union Picnics I used to attend with my grandfather. A union was a good, friendly thing, and we took them for granted. Nearly all companies–and I’m talking a small-town (Kewaunee) company with only a few hundred employees–had unions. Union picnics? Games for kids. Free hot dogs & pop. Polka bands. Beer, of course, for the grownups. evie

  • Karen Little on Facebook

    It sooooo upsets me when I hear people bash unions. Isn’t our country a “union” in its “United States of America?” And are families “unions?” … I can go on. Unions keep people from being disposable and abused.