Labor Day, as a national holiday, dates back to 1894, the year Jacob Coxey and his "Army" of five hundred unemployed Midwestern men marched on Washington. In those days, disputes between labor and management were perhaps more the rule than the exception, and 1894 was full of them; miners were striking at Cripple Creek, Colorado, and the American Railway Union staged a national rail strike.

From the vantage point of 1997, these events seem like, well, ancient history. The Teamsters' two-week strike against United Parcel Service was conspicuous primarily because it was so uncommon; apart from occasional actions by auto workers, hardly anybody seems to be on strike these days, and, apart from the UPS action, certainly nothing with serious national impact. With this lack of activity as backdrop, people in the business of selling unfettered capitalism will tell you with a straight face the problems of America's workers in the 1890s simply no longer exist in the 1990s.

Well, maybe. Certainly the eight-hour day, a highly flammable issue in 1886, the year of the Haymarket riots in Chicago and the founding of the American Federation of Labor, is pretty much a done deal, except maybe at my office. Most sweatshops have moved underground or offshore. But with the nation's vaunted "classless" society proving to be nothing of the sort, and with unemployment stuck within a few ticks of five percent at the behest of Wall Street, it seems to me that the consultants' worry-free America is about as easy to locate as Erewhon or Lilliput.

Whether the vestiges of organized labor can do anything about this remains to be seen. Teamsters president Ron Carey flexed lots of muscle in the UPS strike, but the flexing came to an abrupt halt after "irregularities" in Carey's election came to light. If labor can't clean its own house, it will have hell to pay trying to deal with an increasingly intractable management, or trying to organize an increasingly indifferent workforce. I could go into greater detail, but I have to get ready for work.

The Vent

1 September 1997

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 Copyright © 1997 by Charles G. Hill