Thus says the LORD
I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals —
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7b).
The economy was in the tank. Factory orders were down. Supply far out-stripped demand. Companies shed jobs, cut wages. Sound familiar? The year was 1893. And in the town of Pullman, a town owned by the railroad car manufacturing company of the same name, the rents remained high.
The railroad car factory workers who made up the entire town’s population and who had the rents automatically deducted from their diminished paychecks demanded lower rent and higher pay. They could not get by even by working the now required 16-hour days.
Something had to give.
When their words could not sway the company’s owner, they went on strike, and in sympathy other unions related to the railway industry joined them, paralyzing rail commerce and travel west of Detroit. President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime (on the grounds that it interfered with mail delivery) and sent 12,000 troops to break it up.
People dead and wounded.
By the summer of 1894, a mid-term election year, the strike was over, its leader in jail, the primary union responsible disbanded, and returning workers had to sign a pledge committing them to not forming a new union, ever.
Across the nation, labor seethed at Cleveland’s perceived heavy-handed tactics.
To calm labor and offer a more conciliatory tone, Cleveland seized upon an idea that a number of states had already put into practice, Labor Day: a day of parades and picnics and rest, to celebrate the role of labor in building our great nation. It sailed through the Congress (in a mere six days after the end of the Pullman Strike), passed both houses unanimously, and was signed into law, a new federal holiday.
Despite the move to mend their relationship with labor with a new holiday, Cleveland’s party suffered the largest loss of seats in Congress in any election year in history. Two years later, he was not re-nominated to represent his party in the presidential election of 1896.
Happy Labor Day. Enjoy those hotdogs and burgers.
When I lived in New York, Labor Day was the end of summer. We did the backyard picnic thing with neighbors and friends. The grilling thing. The swimming in the pool thing. Dad and I would make the pilgrimage to Hammer Beverage, where I got to choose the flavors of soda for the party, with cream and black cherry selected in abundance. Labor Day weekend also meant back-to-school sales. Mom shopped for our school wardrobe: new pairs of Sears Toughskin jeans and Keds sneakers, normal stuff. But to be honest, the history of Labor Day as a federal holiday was not something front and center.
Pullman Strike of 1893-94? Can’t recall learning about it. A corporate town owned and operated by a rich owner who set and collected the rents with impunity and ruled with such absolute authority that a post-strike commission branded his running of the town “un-American.” Nope. Never learned about that growing up, either. It’s a holiday for goodness sakes, pass the hotdogs and the sunscreen and keep the cream soda cold.
Amos declared God’s judgment upon Israel. The poor who worked the land were always on the edge of economic disaster: A famine, a bad crop, and they would find their debts overwhelming them. Amos calls out the rich for demanding that the debtors be sold into slavery to satisfy the debt. What was the enslavement of some poor farmer to them? Money was money, after all. And business was business.
But not to God. Over and over again, not to God.
For those who labor, Labor Day should be a day of sacred remembrance of justice, to embed the call for justice into one’s soul so that it might dwell there, live in earnest, rather than fade into the obscurity of the past, lost to time. But we trade such stories and sacred remembrances for a good burger or hot dog (spicy mustard, please, no sauerkraut) and one last summer frolic with friends and family. And maybe a few good games of bocce.
Amos, Micah, and other Old Testament prophets remind us that our God is a God of justice and that God sits up and takes notice when the actions of those with power, in power, fail to reflect God’s justice in their doings in the world, when the poor, the marginalized, and the voiceless suffer. Labor organized in order to gather enough power to make their call for justice heard by those who had turned a deaf ear to them, who exploited them, who had become a law unto themselves in order to preserve their status.
Spend a few minutes reading about the fight to unionize the mines of West Virginia and the Battle of Blair Mountain. It might give one some pause this Labor Day in a nation where labor is routinely vilified in the current economy.
For those who labor, Labor Day cannot be devoid of an acknowledgement and re-committal to work for justice. Celebrate, but remember. Rejoice, yet keep a moment of solemnity. Enjoy, yet see the sacredness in the day.