American Labor, Then and Now: A Pictorial Tribute

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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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