The Importance of Labor Day

In recent years, Labor Day has been perhaps our least celebrated holiday. For many young students and their parents, it serves principally to delay the start of the school year. Since the mainstream media devote so little attention to the holiday, I can hardly think of a more appropriate fall exercise than a quiz on American labor. Maine labor historian Peter Kellman recently prepared this quiz and I am sharing an abbreviated version with you. This quiz keeps on giving. It begs us to ask why we should care about workers' rights and the ways labor history is taught in our public schools.


1. Name three countries where it is as easy for workers to form a union as it for investors to form a corporation in the United States.

2. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 to extend equal protection of the law to African Americans. In the 50 years after ratification, what percentage of the cases brought under it involved African Americans and what percentage involved corporations?

3. The Supreme Court ruled in 1872 that women do not have the right to vote under the 14th Amendment. In what year did the Court rule that corporations were persons within the meaning of the amendment?

4. In 1886 the largest labor organization in the United States was the Knights of Labor. What reforms did they fight for?

5. When was the labor movement powerful enough to prevent the Governor of Michigan and the President of the United States from breaking up a strike by workers who had seized a major corporation's factory.

Answers are below. I would be happy to send Peter's full quiz to interested readers. This quiz reminded me of the vast disparities that have prevailed throughout most of our history between the rights enjoyed by the few who own our corporations and the majority who work for them.

Even to raise this point makes one seem at least vaguely Communist. Nonetheless, the American corporation is a relatively recent legal creation. Private, market based economies have functioned quite well without endowing corporations with inordinate power.

In the early 19th century, property was held primarily by individuals. Corporations were chartered by state legislators for specific, limited purposes. During the Jacksonian era, states enacted general laws of incorporation allowing any group of individuals meeting minimal requirements and filing appropriate papers to incorporate.

A major turning point in our economic history was the emergence late in the 19th century of the doctrine of limited liability. In 1800 stockholders were individually responsible for corporate debts and legally liable for corporate malfeasance. Such liability was a major barrier to investment in corporations

In the post Civil War era, the railroads displayed the social utility achieved by limited liability, concentrated capital, and economies of scale. Nonetheless, concentrated capital also brought with it absolute power. Rail and oil trusts gouged consumers and even excluded whole communities from economic development. In the late 19th and early 20th century legislatures and courts developed laws and procedures to protect consumers against abuses of market power.

In the United States, however, workers enjoyed less protection than their counterparts gained during the early 20th century in many European nations. Until 1932 federal courts frequently provided injunctive relief to owners when their workers struck. Owners were free to band together -- and enjoy limited liability no less -- but when workers collectively boycotted, it was deemed "a conspiracy in restraint of trade."

Even today during union certification elections workers and managers are hardly on an even playing field. Management is free to put up anti-union posters and to hold captive audience meetings. The union can't bring a representative to the work site to talk to workers even during their breaks. This seems normal to most of us: Doesn't the business "belong to the owners?" Well yes, except that the whole limited liability structure is an immense social gift to corporate ownership. That gift is viewed in many European nations as implying social responsibilities and meriting various forms of countervailing power.

Should we care about the anti-democratic nature of our worklife? Aren't we merely trading off a little workplace inequality for greater economic efficiency? Most studies, however, not only in Europe but among a progressive minority of American firms suggest that more egalitarian workplaces are also generally more efficient. More importantly, inegalitarian workplaces help disable American democracy itself. Only a minority of Americans even vote any more. Our workplaces, where many spend most of their waking hours, are cradles of authoritarianism. Free speech and independent initiative often occasion the pink slip. Not surprisingly, Labor Day has become little more than just another holiday rather than an occasion to examine the role that independent labor unions can and must play in healthy democracies.

(1:Sweden, Germany, Italy, Belgium; 2: 0.5%, 50%; 3: 1886; 4: worker cooperatives, no child labor, equal pay for equal work, eight hour day 5: 1936-1937.) John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. To request the full quiz, email or send a postcard c/o The Progressive Populist, PO Box 150517, Austin TX 78715.

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