Ah, Labor Day. Unofficial end of the summer. Time to enjoy a day off of work with some barbecue, boating, or maybe the beach.
We may take having this day off for granted, but the first Labor Day "parade," in 1882, was actually a one-day strike for many workers, according to the New York Times. Labor unions and activists were pressing for the Labor Day holiday to provide recognition of both the contributions and the mistreatment of workers at the time.
In the late 1800s, many Americans — children included — worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, often in physically demanding, low-paying jobs, in harsh and unsafe conditions.
Labor Day Origin
Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, during the crisis of the Pullman strike, which severely disrupted rail traffic in the Midwest. Tens of thousands of workers walked off the job. Angry crowds clashed with federal troops brought in to break the strike. A New York Times article reported from Chicago of a “pitched battle between the regulars and the mob” that had been overturning railcars.
Today’s labor actions have the potential to snarl transportation and goods movement just as much as that “great rail strike” of 1894. Instead of bayonets, bullets, and blood, however, the conflict is carried out in courtrooms, at the negotiating table, and in the media.
This summer saw high-profile strike threats at two of the country’s largest carriers.
Yellow and the Teamsters
Less-than-truckload giant Yellow is blaming the Teamsters union for the company being forced to file for bankruptcy in early August. The union had agreed to concessions in the past to help keep Yellow afloat, but this time said it had had enough.
“Following years of worker give backs, federal loans, and other bailouts, this deadbeat company has only itself to blame for being in this embarrassing position,” Teamsters General President Sean O'Brien said in a statement.
In mid-July, just two weeks before the company shut down, the Teamsters threatened to strike after Yellow missed healthcare and pension payments.
A last-minute deal was struck to avoid a strike, but just the threat of the walkout pushed some shippers to start moving freight to other carriers. That didn't exactly help Yellow’s financial situation. It ceased operations at the end of July — the largest shutdown of a U.S. trucking company since Consolidated Freightways in 2002.
UPS and the Teamsters
At the same time, United Parcel Service was facing a potential walkout by more than 325,000 union members, their five-year contract due to expire at the end of July. There were predictions that a strike would harm not only UPS, but also the economy.
UPS and The Teamsters came to an agreement days before the contract was up. Some of the issues at stake were part-time pay, being forced to work a sixth day of the week, as well as working conditions for delivery drivers suffering in deadly heat waves.
This summer we’ve also seen Hollywood actors and writers go on strike, and the United Auto Workers union is taking a tough stance in its negotiations with Ford, GM, and Stellantis. Workers in a range of industries say they are tired of corporate greed, of CEOs making hundreds of times more than the average worker as companies rake in the profits.
Do unions sometimes go too far? You bet. Just look at the Teamsters’ efforts to address the problem of abuse of independent contractor status by essentially banning the business arrangement altogether, with California’s AB5.
Most trucking companies aren’t unionized. And given it’s an industry of mostly small companies, it’s doubtful that the gap in pay between workers and CEOs is as much as some of those reported among the nation’s largest corporations.
But the issues affecting union workers often affect their non-union counterparts, as well. Is pay keeping up with inflation? Are there problems with working conditions? Do workers feel like their contribution to the company is valued, that they’re sharing in its success?
As we’re enjoying the sunshine and barbecue, let’s give some thought to the “labor” behind Labor Day.