Unfortunately, the unions that were organized by whites excluded black people from their ranks, forcing them to start their own unions.
The defining moment of labor in this era was the Pullman Strike in the summer of 1894. Early that year, the United States was going through a depression and profits were down for the Pullman Car Company based outside of Chicago. The owner, George Pullman, decided to cut the wages of the workers, but not lower their rents and utilities. This caused major upheaval to the point that President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops to squash the rebellion at the suggestion of the country’s industrial tycoons. The rebellion was crushed, but this act ended up making Cleveland a one term president by alienating the working class of this country.
In a last ditch appeasement effort, Cleveland signed a law making Labor Day a national holiday. So this day, that we all enjoy with barbecues and parties, was actually a desperate effort of a man in power who recognized too late the importance of laborers to this country.
Knowing the history of power imbalances regarding workers and business leaders — especially as it has affected blacks — should make this day a cause of remembrance in addition to relaxation.
Labor Day lesson learned: Black people must use our talents to become owners, not just laborers
Whether it is slavery or the use of governmental power to crush labor unions, the U.S. has always favored the interest of owners over those of laborers. This is especially true for black people. One of the worst things about the Industrial Revolution is that people worked such long hours that they did not have any extra time to invest in education, which is a key factor onto the road of ownership. This is why it is so important today that blacks use their entrepreneurial talents to create generational wealth. Through remembering what happened to our first paid ancestors, the sharecroppers, it is evident that education is key.
We have made many gains since then, and the Civil Rights Movement has helped African-Americans — business people and laborers — gain so much more. However, 40 years since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, we have a lot of ground to make up for the hundreds of years we worked without pay.
Legislation has only taken us so far. The Civil Rights Movement of the 21st century is economic empowerment, so let us all do our part in making the black community stronger in that regard.
As we all must labor, we must also learn to work as owners creating wealth for ourselves.
Lawrence Watkins is the founder of Great Black Speakers, Great Pro Speakers, and co-founder of Ujamaa Deals, which is a daily deal site that promotes black-owned businesses. He graduated in 2006 from The University of Louisville with a B.S. in electrical engineering and earned his MBA from Cornell University in 2010. Lawrence currently resides in Atlanta. You can follow him on Twitter @lawrencewatkins.