At Your Service: September 2, 2009

In reaction to the economic panic of 1893 and a parallel decline in sales, The Pullman Palace Car Company (manufacturer of railroad cars) cut the wages of its employees. The company owned the town in which its workers lived. When the employees complained that the company had not reduced rents to correspond to the reduction in their income, owner George Pullman refused to talk to them. The workers went on strike on June 26, 1894.
During the strike and supportive boycott led by the American Railway Union (ARU), 125,000 workers on 29 railroads quit or were forced off their jobs, effectively shutting down the railroad system. On the premise that the strike interfered with the delivery of the US mail, President Grover Cleveland sent in the US Marshalls and 12,000 army troops to end it. When the dust had settled, 13 strikers were dead, 57 wounded and almost $7 million in property damage (current dollars) had been sustained.
The Pullman Strike was a seminal event in American history. Despite the fact that Cleveland made reconciliation with labor his top political priority, his actions during the strike cost him the reelection. In its aftermath, labor unions solidified their power and secured a long list of workers’ rights. At the culmination of the ensuing legal battles, the Supreme Court declared company owned towns to be un-American and illegal. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike.
The holiday that was created as a celebration of the “working man” has come to mean little more than the end of summer. The working man has been joined in the workforce by women. Many who were once considered to be management, in the information age, think of themselves as “workers.” And everyone wishes that the way they earn was a labor of love.
This week marked the passing of one who did manage to make his life’s work a labor of love. Ted Kennedy’s work was service to his constituents in the State of Massachusetts and as a US Senator, to the nation at large. There is both agreement and amazement at the level of accomplishment he achieved as a legislator during his 47 years in office. Among the many landmark laws enacted under his leadership and sponsorship are those protecting the rights of the mentally ill, providing for nutrition labeling, the Americans with Disabilities Act, reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 at the height if the Viet Nam war, the deregulation of the airline industry, the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in 1997 (“HIPAA”), the Children’s Health Act of 2000, the Project BioShield Act of 2003, the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2005, the FDA Amendments Act of 2007, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008. For nearly half a century, Senator Kennedy was a leading voice for human rights, social justice and democracy from Northern Ireland to South Africa.
Early in his career, Kennedy exhibited the working style that would continue throughout his career, as reported by New York Times reporter William Shannon, “Kennedy brought to the poll tax fight, that fierce startling intensity of purpose and energy that the Kennedys evince in combat,… By the time the Senate debate opened [on the Voting Rights Act of 1965], Kennedy was intellectually the master of his issue. He had also been busy on the political side. Senators ordinarily leave the work on canvassing their colleagues to the lobbyists for organizations backing their views, but Kennedy had personally talked with every Senator who he had any reason to believe might support his amendment. He succeeded in obtaining 38 co-sponsors….When the showdown finally came, the Administration had to make a strong appeal to certain Democratic Senators to avoid defeat. The Kennedy amendment lost, 49-45. But in everything except the final vote, the loser emerged the winner.” On March 24, 1966, the Supreme Court vindicated Kennedy by declaring the poll tax unconstitutional.
What made Kennedy’s work a labor of love was the way he brought personal caring to it all. The stories of what he did for individuals have filled the airwaves and led thousands to the vigil held upon his death. But to me, the most telling of all the stories is one simple fact. During 47 years as a Senator, Ted Kennedy found/made a way to personally attend the funeral of every soldier from Massachusetts who fell in the line of service to this country.
May we all find to celebrate our own labors of love.