September 6, 1997


The day after tomorrow many of us will celebrate Labor Day by not laboring. The holiday itself dates back to June 28th, 1894, when the Federal government declared it a holiday for its own employees, and set the first Monday in September as the date. But let us not labor under a misapprehension. Labor relations and problems predate the Declaration of Independence by 140 years.

In 1636, Maine's colonial government announced that the pay of fishermen would be regulated. Fishermen could calculate as well as anyone and some quick reckoning revealed they would lose the equivalent of a year's wages if the proposal passed. They walked. And the British colonies experienced the first dispute over wages in America.

It was in 1677 that twelve New York City cartmen - we'd call them teamsters today - walked off the job. The government cited them with contempt of court and they returned to work, thus marking the first colonial prosecution for an action by labor. It was only a brief deterrent; the carters walked off the job again seven years later. The work front was fairly quiet in the American colonies over the next several decades. Then, in 1707, laborers in Philadelphia threatened a job action when it was proposed that slaves be used to do their work.

European tradesmen had learned to band together in guilds for self-protection and the lesson was not lost on their colonial counterparts. In 1724 London's Carpenters' Company inspired Philadelphia craftsmen to found their own version. Adopting the concept from their brothers in Philadelphia, New York workers founded an employees' association in 1764.

Wages could be discussed only where they existed. The following year found the New Jersey legislature appropriating money for unemployment relief. Meanwhile, back in Europe, financial contractors to the French government instituted a compulsory plan in 1768, which matched deductions from wages, to provide workers' pensions.

In the colonies, the earlier failure of Philadelphia businessmen to save money by replacing free workers with slaves, hadn't killed the concept. In 1773 Maryland ironmaster Charles Carroll proposed staffing foundries with blacks to cut labor costs.

We should also point out that labor disputes were not just a "guy" thing, even then. In 1734 the ladies got into the act when housemaids in New York City formed the first women's labor organization in America.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.



© 1997 David Mnor Eagles Byte