Labor in America

| September 02, 2022

It is unsurprising that America honors workers in September and not in May as with Europe and elsewhere. The Old World always had a shortage of land and a surplus of labor while North America possessed an unparalleled surplus of land and a dearth of peasants. Europe’s economic system of a landed aristocracy supported by an overabundance of labor could not work here. No nobleman or woman could offer the choice between near-starvation, starvation, or hanging.

This shortage of labor in the New World saved many an Englishman’s life. The most notorious example is that of the pitiful occupants of Newgate Prison. Hanging for property crimes became so commonplace that the British replaced the Tyburn Tree with the famous “Triple Tree” so that those condemned at the Old Bailey could be hanged en masse.* describes how “23 men and one woman were executed for burglary and robbery, having been conveyed there in 8 carts.” Ultimately, this waste of human labor gave way to transportation to the New World, where the condemned could become indentured servants or slaves. The practice formed a loose basis for Rafael Sabatini’s novel Captain Blood. Many people may be more familiar with the movie starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

This tension between the aristocratic desire for cheap labor and the emerging idea of a property-owning American dream is an integral part of the American story. The Civil War did not put its most abominable manifestation behind us. Industrialization increased the demand for cheap labor and ultimately resulted in federal intervention during the 1894 Pullman Strike. The Pullman Palace Car Company turned its workers into peasants and the threat of starvation became real for its employees. President Grover Cleveland escalated the resulting violence by sending in troops. On July 7 national guardsmen responded to attacks against them by firing on rioters, killing somewhere between 4 and 20 people.

During the Pullman Crisis, Grover Cleveland and Congress extended an olive branch to workers by declaring Labor Day a legal holiday. Five years earlier, the International Socialist Conference declared May 1 to be Labor Day to honor another violent episode in American labor history, the Haymarket Tragedy. Socialist competition for union support led to the alternate choice of September.

By 1958, the balance between the supply of labor and the demand for it had tipped once more in labor’s favor. That July, President Eisenhower declared May 1 Loyalty Day to demonstrate the strength of our system when compared to the Soviet Union. Labor built the weapons, ships, and equipment that defeated the Nazis. Labor would help us overcome the Soviets.

Eisenhower’s vision of a strong America powered by a vast middle class is the one I grew up with. Today, we once again have a shortage of labor. Unfortunately, that shortage arises for different reasons. Yet, it continues to exert a powerful influence on our economy, our markets, and our society. I shall devote a future blog or two to my own observations and readings about today’s labor challenges.

In the meantime, we at Treasure Coast Financial Planning honor those who make our lives better. Among these are the people who keep our air conditioners working, our technology functioning, our lawn respectable, our homes and offices painted, our plumbing operational, and our hospitals open. There are so many more to whom we owe our thanks. Happy Labor Day!

* Clark R. "Being hanged at Tyburn". The Capital Punishment UK, 1995. Accessed on 08.24.2022.