Editorial: Labor Day origin a far cry from a fun day off | News | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Editorial: Labor Day origin a far cry from a fun day off


Ah, Labor Day. A three-day weekend full of barbecues and fun in the sun. The unofficial end of summer. Baseball's pennant races are in full swing; football season is just a week away.

Few people reflect on, or even know, the origin of the holiday, which was the horrendous abuse of employees in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Labor Day became a national holiday in response to the "Pullman Strike," a railroad workers' strike in 1894 that seriously hindered travel in the Midwest for months and was a turning point in U.S. labor law.

George Pullman housed his workers in a "company town," where they paid rent to live in company-owned housing and bought necessities at the "company store," where they paid with vouchers in advance of paychecks. A depression hit in 1893 and Pullman laid off hundreds of workers and cut pay, but he didn't lower rent or change pricing in the company store, leaving many in perpetual debt.

Workers went on strike; Pullman refused to negotiate. Uprisings were brutal and bloody, leaving 30 dead and many more injured. After a few months of the strike that affected travel throughout the U.S., the federal government had to step in to end it.

While things improved over the next five decades, substandard working conditions and the company-town situations continued in some states and industries.

A Tennessee Ernie Ford song, "Sixteen Tons," recorded in 1946, was written about life in a coal-mining company town in Kentucky.

The line "You load 16 tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt" came from a letter written by the song writer Merle Travis's brother John. Another line came from their father, a coal miner, who would say: "I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store."

Labor disputes continue today, but workers' lives have improved dramatically. Now companies respect human resources and are proud to be among the best places to work. For example, Workday, headquartered in Pleasanton, ranked fourth on Fortune's 2019 list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For, which "recognizes U.S. companies with exceptional workplace cultures." Cisco, another of Pleasanton's large employers, ranked sixth on the list.

So while you're flipping burgers on the grill, playing cornhole and generally saying farewell to summer 2019, also reflect on how much better workers have it today.

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