American Labor, Then and Now: A Pictorial Tribute

Labor Day construction workersLabor Day signals the end of summer and the start of the school year, but it's also is a moment to consider America's workers and the long -- and continuing -- struggle for employee rights.

It's a hard time to be a worker in America. Between the country's 9.6% unemployment rate and its 16.7% underemployment rate, the rise of outsourcing and the decline of full-time jobs, workers are facing a lean job market and an uncertain future. Historically, 2010 is not all that different from 1894, the year Labor Day was first added to the national calendar.

A Bloody History

In the late nineteenth century, America was caught in the middle of a brutal economic depression. Unemployment topped 18% as companies across the country slashed wages and fired workers by the thousands. Labor unrest rose with the unemployment rate. At the Pullman Palace Car Company in Illinois, workers lived in Pullman-owned housing, sent their kids to Pullman-owned schools and bought food in Pullman-owned stores; although the company cut wages, it didn't reduce rents, leaving thousands of employees unable to support themselves. Despite repeated requests, George Pullman, the president of the company, refused to meet with union representatives.

On May 11, 1894, 3,000 Pullman employees went on strike; before long, they were joined by an estimated 250,000 rail workers across 27 states. As rail traffic west of Chicago ground to a halt, President Grover Cleveland stepped in, citing the threat to America's mail delivery. In early July, he sent 12,000 troops to the Pullman factory; within days, 13 workers were killed, 57 were wounded, and the strike was broken.

Soon after the strike's end, President Cleveland signed the law that made Labor Day into a national holiday. Ultimately, his attempt to soothe the hurt feelings of America's laborers didn't work: facing an angry populace, he decided not to run for a third term. In 1897, he left office. Later the same year, George Pullman died; afraid that his body would be desecrated by angry employees, he had himself buried in a solid block of concrete.

The Golden Age of American Labor

For our Labor Day gallery (above), we've used images from the Library of Congress and the Getty archives to illustrate how American labor has changed over the last seventy years. In some ways, the face of labor is vastly different today: mass production and automation have replaced many Wall Street traders with computers, aircraft workers with robots, and family farmers with feed lots. But the world of half a century ago is also remarkably familiar: while yesterday's unemployed farmers have given way to today's migrant workers, and yesterday's Rosie the Riveter has been replaced with today's oil boom maker, Americans still show a pride in work and a commitment to the needs of the country.

And even with automation and outsourcing, freelancing and part-time employment, the American economy still depends on its workers. Whether training for war or rebuilding Ground Zero, cleaning up an industrial disaster or forging infrastructure, labor remains the heart of the country's economy and the soul of its society.

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Unions have driven all jobs/factories for the unskilled and semi-skilled out of this country. They will never be back and unemployment will continue to increase. Example: Even when you offer unemployed $25.00 and hour, they ask for $50.00. These are the reasons they are unemployed.

September 07 2010 at 8:06 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Unions have become so corrupt that they can't even keep their trust funds solvent anylonger. The union is no longer relevant in the American system. Corruption is the usual rather than the exception and thuggery is more and more evident. Obama and the congress has been paid for by the unions as evidenced by the pandering being done by Obama and congress. The Obamacare law is a perfect example of how unions have been pandered to at the expense of the American taxpayer. The time for unions is over. May they rest in hell.

September 07 2010 at 7:14 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I know you think everyone one this board is a moron but where did the unions get the money to build all these things America has built? Why did the unions carry white only signs during that period of segregation in this great nation. I don't despise union workers quite the contrary. I just refuse to believe they are better than any other non union worker. I believe union protect the inept far more than better wages for all including non union worker. My biggest objections are union teachers who refused a pay cut to protect fellow union workers in this current depression. My objection is union teachers have more rights to benefits than our children's right to excellence in education. Does every parent who sends their child to school owe more to the precious union member, than their own precious child? I see so many well written union propaganda paragraphs. If and when you would like to talk about your current union today, corruption, bid rigging, millions in extortion, and the buying of let us know. If union workers represented the best money could buy, I would support the union. I was once a proud union worker many many years ago. My pride ended when pedophile teacher couldn't be fired because they were proud union members. The union was kind enough to let them go to administration jobs. Thank you for your kindness. I got tire of being an arm of DNC politicians rather than an arm of the community, and better standards in general to benefit all, instead of the greedy few. I in no way condemn all union workers, I have met many good union members in the rank and file, but union management and bosses, make the mafia look timid by comparison. I hire union and non union workers, the non union workers out perform union worker most every time. They actually are willing to work at our customers convenience....not their own. In fact the union bosses demand they not comply. Jack excellent post......LMAO ...armed Pinkertons...1852-1937? The most generous account was 3871 persons, and that included Burns also. Once the unions and DNC became one party, I never again supported unions

September 07 2010 at 1:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Obama's Labor Day speech in Milwaukee was more like a campaign stump speech than a holiday greeting. His message was more of a political "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." Obama said: "Some powerful interests who had been dominating the agenda in Washington for a very long time, they're not always happy with me. They talk about me like a dog. That's not in my prepared remarks, but it's true." He said Republicans disagree with anything he says. "If I said the sky is blue, they'd say no," Obama said. "If I said fish live in the sea, they'd say no." He said he was proposing a $50-billion program to jump-start job creation and to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of the United States. The plan includes the rebuilding of 150,000 miles of road, 4,000 miles of railroad tracks and 150 miles of runways. The House Republican leader, John Boehner of Ohio, soon responded to the infrastructure proposal. He released a statement saying: "As the American people, facing near double-digit unemployment, mark Labor Day by asking, where are the jobs, the White House has chosen to double-down on more of the same failed 'stimulus' spending. Eighteen months ago, the administration promised that if we passed their trillion-dollar 'stimulus' it would create jobs 'immediately' and keep unemployment below 8 percent. Instead, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and unemployment is approaching 10 percent. If we've learned anything from the past 18 months, it's that we can't spend our way to prosperity." Obama described the U.S. economy as a car that had been driven into a ditch by Republicans during the administration of George W. Bush. The president said working people had struggled to pull the car out of the ditch, only to have the Republicans ask for the keys back. "I don't want to give them the keys back," Obama said. "They don't know how to drive." Obama has blah, blah, blah spoken. With POW/MIA Recognition day soon, I expect a flag burning by Michelle.

September 07 2010 at 12:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The same unions that got billions in free tax dollars, Oddly just found 176 million dollars to assist DNC union friendly candidates get reelected to office. They also kicked off this campaign for a 50 billion dollar stimulus for FDR style WPA jobs. That's more government census workers (ACORN) in construction attire. It's time We the People start jailing union leaders and the DNC for collusion, fraud, and quid pro quo election violations. Obama didn't just come up with this plan, He was literally threatened by the unions to do so, or the unions would not assist in this DNC 2010 election campaign. It is time to get the thieves out of Washington, and than severely regulate the unions. We need a special prosecutor against our Government who insist Arizona is more dangerous than our corrupt unions. The unions got enough kickback capital, it is time to shut Obama and the corrupt socialist unions down....permanently. 90% of FDR's policies were declared unconstitutional for a reason.... We settled for a two term limit in writing. Footnote....this might have been worthy of taken food stamp money from the poor instead of 26 billion union bailouts. We need private sector jobs...not more union thugs or Obama chain gangs........................ Newsflash We got rid of Bush and the GOP for far less incompetence than this...The party of obstructionist were right to vote NO...The Middle class private sector taxpayers are paying for your union pension for life. Please lie all you wish to yourself, but don't you dare tell us you are our friends. You are in the union for your personal gain, and not our best interest....have I thought about this long enough?

September 06 2010 at 11:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

To Corporate America: American old fashion pride in our work. We are willing to put in an honest days work. We will follow your rules. But remember this: we are the backbone of your company. If we were not in your stores, on your phones or working for you, you would not have a company. The American worker is the one who built this country under your company name. We are the ones who built the bridges which still stand, the buildings you live in and work in. We are the ones who buy your goods to keep you in business. Do not spit in our faces. Maybe, we could go on strike and not buy from you. Not work for you. The American people have more power to grind this economy to a halt better than any stupidness you can do. All we have to do is say: no more. Not go shopping, not go to work. Scary idea. We don't need a union to do this. All we need to do is not show up. This economy runs on the ability of the American workforce to buy the goods and services we produce. Without our buying power no matter where it is made, you are lost without us and our paychecks. So think about that this Labor Day. Think about that!

September 06 2010 at 11:41 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Slowly but surely, more and more jobs are becoming available. Are you ready? To make sure you're pointed in the right direction, check out There's a wealth of information there for you.

September 06 2010 at 11:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

well said diturp

September 06 2010 at 9:52 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The Corporations and Big business have their Union, it's called the "Chamber Of Commerce". Without the right to bargin as a group, labor has no defence against the greed and corruption of Corporations or Big business. Labor Unions are vital to equal the power influence in Washington. People can slur Unions all they want but in the final analysis, without them there would be no middle class and no future for our children or our future generations. If you are blue collar and think differently then you are sadly mistaken. I'm Union and proud of it, I will soon get a pension and life time medical coverage which I will pay part of and I have a 401K I have paid into for 32 years. I will be retiring @ 58 years old and that's a hell of a lot more than non-Union labor can say-- I'll bet on it!! Thanks Union Brothers and Sisters --We Are America because we built it.

September 06 2010 at 9:15 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to dlturp's comment
Patriotic Paul

the battle between capitalists and labor is as old as humanity. today we find ourselves with the help of both parties, back to the standard of living enjoyed by African workers coming here against their will.

September 06 2010 at 9:24 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Unions are the reason why there is a middle income. If the unions disapear your middle income wages disapear even if you don't belong to a union.

September 06 2010 at 8:57 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply