For most Americans, Labor Day is simply viewed as the last Summer hurrah marking the transition into fall. It’s a day to relax, maybe travel to the beach or lake one last time and enjoy one last, good outdoor barbeque with friends. They give little thought to what it means.
“Labor Day” is a misnomer. It is a leisure day ostensibly designed to celebrate the labor movement. Labor Day has a violent, bloody and remarkably socialist history.
It was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland on June 28, 1894 during the Pullman strike, two days after some 150,000 railway workers in 27 states joined the 4,000 Pullman workers already staging a work stoppage.
But like most union strikes, workers weren’t content to just walk off their jobs, they used violence and intimidation to force their will on their employers. They blocked train tracks and harassed and assaulted replacement workers.
“When they began running the trains, crowds of railroad workers would form to try to stop them from running,” said Indiana State University professor and labor historian Richard Schneirov, who edited The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s. “There was a lot of sympathy from people. They’d come out and try to help the railroad workers stop the trains. They might even be initiators — standing in front of the tracks and chucking pieces of coal and rocks and pieces of wood. Then there would be lots of kids, lots of teenagers, out of work or just hanging around and looking to join in for the fun.”
Over the objections of Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, Cleveland sent in federal troops to get the trains running. The General Manager’s Association – a group representing 26 Chicago railroad companies – deputized federal marshals to help put down the strike. But the violence escalated into clashes that left 30 people dead caused $80 million in damages.
This sort of action is common throughout the history of labor unions. A union warning from the 1830s suggests how unions discouraged interlopers:
“We would caution all strangers and others who profess the art of horseshoeing, that if they go work for any employer under the above prices, they must abide by the consequences.”
Americans by and large believe the trope that was fed to them in government schools that there was a time when unions were necessary because greedy capitalists exploited workers. Even those who oppose unions today often repeat this falsehood, failing to recognize or acknowledge that those “exploited workers” were being provided jobs that were often far better than some other type of work they could be doing, and they were free to leave the job at any time and find another.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some horrendous working conditions. But in order to keep employees, employers were forced by the free market to pay higher wages to those workers willing to take the risks.
Unions are decidedly collectivist constructs. And like all collectivist systems they stifle innovation, ambition, enterprise and invention, reducing all employees to the lowest common denominator. Unions are cartels – and some legal documents have called them criminal conspiracies engaged in restraint of trade — that artificially drive up wages, which drives up prices and reduces the standard of living for everyone. Artificially high wage rates lead to layoffs and unemployment, particularly among the less skilled and those with less experience and the young.
Like all collectivist systems, unions engage in theft, forcing workers — even non-union workers in many cases — to give up a portion of their earnings to support union activities and the union bosses — who make far more than the laborers — whether they support those activities or not. Since wages and working conditions are set by unions, low-efficiency labor is encouraged because the union worker knows his job is protected. Unions reduce the employer’s ability to discipline or fire his workers as he sees fit.
Unions are anti-liberty in that they prevent people from working by controlling the labor market. Using government to create protectionist laws like apprenticeship programs and licensing requirements, the supply of labor is reduced. Unions – and labor laws pushed onto us by union interference in the political process – prevent young people from working and limit the number of hours people can work, thereby interfering in individual contracts.
Unions also prohibit people from bettering themselves. In companies without unions, the more value the employee brings to the company the better he can be compensated. Unions not only disincentivize creating more value for the company, they prevent it by capping worker salary at a certain rate for each job category. This, too, interferes with individual contracts.
As noted above, unions use coercive tactics to achieve their ends. Workers are certainly free to leave their jobs if working conditions or wages are unsatisfactory, even free to leave en masse if they choose, but employers should likewise be free to hire replacement workers, and employees who wish to stay on and replacement workers should not be threatened, assaulted, murdered or blacklisted by the union and its members for having done so. Labor laws passed by politicians supported by union money grant almost free license for unions to use coercive behaviors but largely prevent companies from firing and replacing striking workers.
As TJ Roberts of Liberty Hangout writes, “Unions, on an economic political and ethical level, are illegitimate entities that hurt the poor, promote the State, and engage in violence against honest people and should be rejected entirely by libertarians and society alike.”
So as you celebrate Labor Day, stop and consider for a moment exactly what it is you’re celebrating.