• Notes From The Frontier

Why Do We Have Labor Day?



For most Americans, today—Labor Day—is the last hurrah of summer—picnics, bar-b-que, that last summer weekend party before autumn. While you’re flipping that

burger or reaching for that beer, take a minute to consider why we even have this holiday. Most of us don’t fully appreciate our American quality of life and take our rights for granted. What do we take for granted? Just for starters...


• Our children & grandkids don’t work in factories, fields or mines as early as 5 yr-olds • 8-hour work day • 5-day work week (40 hours) • Overtime pay • Sick leave • Paid vacation • Paid holidays • Health care insurance  • Family Medical Leave Act • Workers' comp when injured on the job • Unemployment insurance  • Guaranteed minimum wage • Workplace safety rules reduce fatalities & injuries • Public sector workers can collectively bargain • Job discrimination prohibited  • Occupational Safety and Health Act protections • Pensions for workers (although many companies no longer offer this)


Another fact: most Americans don’t realize that the United States has the bloodiest history in the world for worker rights. Perhaps that is because our country was ahead of the world in industrializing, so American workers’ rights also led the world. The evolution of workers’ rights has always been a struggle between the haves and the have-nots since humankind began. The Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of factories and cities burgeoning with workers for factories. The Industrial Revolution was also the beginning of workers organizing and fighting for more rights and better working conditions. 


During the Industrial Revolution, the majority of people lived to work. There was no leisure time. In the early 1800s, workers labored 16 hours daily, six days a week. They took the Sabbath off. Children also worked because wages were low and children needed to work for families to make ends meet. Often the work was very dangerous and if a worker was hurt, that usually meant the “poor house.” There were no workers’ rights, no worker protections, no worker compensation for injuries or death. Poverty was pervasive and most workers lived in tenement slums. Because working and living conditions were so hard and people were crammed together, disease spread quickly; the average life expectancy of working Americans in the mid-1800s was 35-40 years old. 


Work in factories, steel mills and mines were extremely dangerous. Little statistical information about workplace injuries and fatalities exist before 1880, but historical narratives are shocking. Coal mining and the railroad industry comprised about half of worker deaths in 1900, but reporting was still spotty and poorly enforced in industry and agriculture. In 1907 alone, there were 3,242 coal mining accidents. This did not take into account black lung deaths.


According to U.S. job statistics, today there are 13 job fatalities EVERY day in the U.S. workforce (there were 4,800 workers killed on the job in 2015). But more than 100 years ago, the on-the-job death rate was nearly 35 times that of today per capita. Back in 1900 half of all worker deaths occurred in two industries—coal mining and railroading. As an example, in 1898, about 9% of steel workers died on-the-job, crushed by cauldrons of molten steel, falling cranes, huge ladles, trains, switching operations, or slag pit avalanches, or overcome by noxious fumes, chemicals or fires. For all United States workers, the number of fatalities per dollar of real (inflation-adjusted) GNP dropped by 96 percent between 1900 and 1979. 


Perhaps the worst scourge of working conditions in the 1800s was child labor. Children as young as five had to work in coal mines, factories and garment works, often alongside their mothers or fathers. Injuries were commonplace and accepted among factory owners. Since they didn’t have to pay compensation for injuries or death, the cost of such casualties was negligible for factory owners but catastrophic for working families, who bore the entire burden. 


Child labor was especially common in coal mines, chimney sweeping, prostitution, rat catching, and newspaper and street barking. Coal mining and street sweeping favored children because they were small and could fit into tight places and required far less pay. Dickensian horrors were commonplace in factories and mines. Children were used as “hurriers” to push along coal carts on their hands and knees in cramped and completely dark horizontal coal shafts. They often developed permanent medical conditions like congested lungs or lung cancer, spinal deformation, damaged eye sight and broken bones. Also rats, explosions, and cave-ins were ever present risks. 


Child labor was the first area of working conditions to be addressed by legislation in America and England, mostly driven by churches. The first government report on child labor was in 1842. In that same year, the Mines Act banned the employment of boys under the age of ten and all women and girls in underground employment. In 1847, The Ten-Hour Act cut hours of women and children under 18 to 10-1/2 hours a day and 58 hours per week. However, this did NOT apply to men’s employment. They continued to work 16-hour days. In 1850, The Ten-Hour Act was extended to all workers, including men. 


Working conditions remained horrific and extremely dangerous, however. Children often operated dangerous machinery or separated coal on moving conveyors and would lose limbs, break bones or be killed. Girls in cotton gins, for example, often caught their hair or fingers in the gins. Some would be scalped or decapitated. A common job for children in textile factories was called “mule scavenging” in which children would crawl under spinning equipment to catch excess cotton. Getting caught in the equipment and losing limbs was very common. (White phosphorous was and is still used in illegal warfare.) Little girls often worked in matchstick factories dipping wooden matches into white phosphorus. They would contract “phossy jaw,” necrosis that ate away the jaw and was an excruciating and slow death. In 1888, a group of girls held a strike to replace white phosphorus with more safe red phosphorus. In 1912, white phosphorous was outlawed in U.S. and English factories. 


Glass factories, too, provided some of the most dangerous jobs for children. Little boys, derisively called “dog boys” or “blowers’ dogs,” worked alongside glass blowers and handled and cleaned every piece of molten glass that the glass blower took from the furnace, a process repeated hundreds of times in a single shift. Horrific burns, blow-overs and molten glass dust were constant dangers that maimed, blinded and killed children. But, since adults were paid by the piece, children were pressured to work as fast as they could. There was no compensation for accidents, injuries, or fatalities and survivors, often permanently handicapped, ended up in the poor house or debtors’ prison. 


Upton Sinclair, wrote a scathing critique of child labor and American working conditions, especially in meat packing plants, in his book called “The Jungle.” In the book, 13-year-old Stanislovas works in a Chicago lard packing factory, but gets such bad frostbite working in the unheated factory in winter, he loses three of his fingers, then loses his factory job. “For this, at the end of the week,” Sinclair wrote in The Jungle, “he would carry home three dollars to his family, his pay being five cents per hour, like the [nearly two million] children earning their livings in the United States." Stanislovas’ story does not end well. He gets another factory job where he is locked inside the factory accidently for the night, falls asleep and is attacked by rats and gnawed to death. 


Sinclair hoped to inspire improvements in working conditions in factories. Ironically, he wrote: “I aimed at the public’s heart and, by accident, hit its stomach.” Readers were sickened by Sinclair’s revolting details about meatpacking factories and sales of meat in the U.S. fell 50% after Sinclair’s book was published, which led to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. 


Nevertheless, Sinclair’s writing made a huge societal impact. The author meticulously researched Chicago’s packing plants, including the assertion that employees and children fell into lard vats and became lard themselves. “When they were fished out,” he wrote, “often days later, there was never enough of them left [to prove it was them] till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Lard.” 

ON WEDNESDAY: The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and conditions for working women.


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

Posted September 2, 2019 on Facebook

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PHOTOS: (1) “Breaker Boys” as young as 5-years-old in 1870s Pennsylvania coal mines worked 10-hr. days, six days a week, their fingers or hands sometimes amputated by fast-moving conveyor belts. (2) Textile factories were notorious for child labor. Children worked next to dangerous moving equipment that could maim and even decapitate. (3) Chimney sweeping businesses commonly employed children because they fit down chimneys. But it was dangerous and dirty work. (4) Textiles factories hired many children. Children often were “mule scavengers” who crawled under the working equipment to gather errant cotton and wool but often got caught up in the moving parts. (5 & 6) Farming and agriculture were even more poorly regulated and children as young as toddlers helped with field work, weeding, seeding, and picking cotton. (7 & 8 ) Nearly two million children as young as five worked in factories, fields, mills and mines to help feed their families from the mid-1800s to the turn of the century. PHOTOS 2, 4 & 8 by Lewis Wickes Hine.

  • Notes From the Frontier