A special message from Walter Wise, General President of the Ironworkers Union
Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, pre-dating the founding of our own International Association. It was a time of brutal working conditions: 6-12s the standard workweek; child labor; no holidays, no sick days or pensions; and worker safety was unheard of. It was a time when corporate power and excesses were at a peak. Monopolies dominated industries and labor alike. Wages were depressed to the point where workers were paid in company script (money) that could only be spent on housing, goods or services sold by the employer. Most employees owed more than they earned each month.
Intolerable conditions led to strikes that were met with brutal retaliation from company thugs, the police and even the government. Those confrontations were described as a second “civil war.” Labor Day as a federal holiday was a failed attempt by President Cleveland to gain labor support for a third term after he sent 12,000 federal troops to break the Pullman Car Company strike where at least 13 strikers were killed. The demands of decent wages, an 8-hour workday and the right to organize did not come about until nearly 50 years later. Labor Day represents our fight, not a victory.
The strength of individual workers overcame ethnic and racial tensions to unite in their common plight. They fought to gain bargaining power with their employer, to demand a fair share of the profits that their labor helped generate. As Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, said: “Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”
Since the eighties, that shared equity partnership has been broken. Not between us and our signatory contractors, but by the moneyed interests of Wall Street with their pursuit of unfair profits and higher bonuses at the expense of everyone else, including our own nation’s independence and security.
This history is not only worthy of being remembered on Labor Day, but every day you walk into the workplace, every time you cash your collectively bargained paycheck, each year when you vote and every time you hug your loved ones. Our fight continues.
Thank you for helping to build our great Union.