Monday, September 3, 2012
Hard as it is to believe, Labor Day didn't start out as an end of summer three day get away. In 1897, President Grover Cleveland signed a law creating a holiday celebrating American labor. Of course, the law was passed in panic. Federal troops and U.S. Marshals had just gunned down a number of strikers at the Pullman rail car plant in Illinois, and the country was worried about the possibility of a violent, labor rebellion.
The American labor movement fought for the eight hour workday, the forty hour week, minimum wage laws, better wages and safe working conditions. Labor also fought for better schools, the expansion of state college systems, infrastructure, safe drinking water, old age pensions, health insurance, and sewer socialism, the movement to improve cities and towns through government spending. And with each labor victory, the business community warned that the economy would collapse and small businesses would fail. Sound familiar?
So is this photograph an example of child labor? Probably not. Labor also pushed for the end of child labor in the United States, and for vocational training where young people could learn a trade while still at school.
I grew up in a small coal mining town in western Pennsylvania. A lot of the seniors in my home town were missing fingers. They told stories of being five year old breaker boys at the mine. Rather than going to school, they would sit at a conveyor belt and sort coal by size. It was a rare child that made it to ten without loosing a finger or two. Their greatest fear as children was they would loose too many fingers, and be unable to grip a shovel when they were old enough to go into the mines. That meant being turned out of the company towns and destitution.