One hundred and eighty years ago, the fugitive from slavery who outran bloodhounds, swam rivers, and hunkered down in the dark cellars of the underground railroad in the hope of reaching a welcoming community in Detroit, Toronto, or Boston instinctively understood both dimensions of freedom.
Fifty-some years after that, about 260,000 workers in Chicago and all over the country understood both dimensions of freedom, too, when they launched into their long strike against the Pullman Company over their starvation wages. The courts and the military were mobilized to suppress these workers but that didn’t bring them back into the shops and factories. The workers continued to endure deprivations while the company continued to endure financial losses week after week, until the company agreed to hire back many of the strikers.
The Pullman Strike wasn’t a clear-cut victory for labor, but it demonstrated that worker solidarity had become a potent force. Indeed, it had gotten strong enough to disrupt commerce, including the transportation of food and essentials. Fear of more disruptions like the Pullman Strike motivated President Grover Cleveland and Congress to declare Labor Day a national holiday in their desperate efforts to placate working people.
What connects these events fifty-some years apart was the realization by fugitives from slavery and by striking workers that we need to join groups and communities to secure our freedom from the oppression and cruelties of those forces that exceed our individual capabilities.
- The fugitive from slavery fled from south to north to join abolitionist communities who steadfastly resisted their oppression.
- Years later, workers in a number of our big cities joined labor unions to fortify their solidarity.
Today, it seems everyone is well familiar with the first dimension of freedom. That dimension is individual or personal freedom, and it’s immensely popular. Our founders called it “liberty,” and it was a key concept in the founding of the nation.
However, we think far less about the second dimension – inter-personal freedom, or civic or group freedom. This is the freedom to form groups and coalitions to fight back against forces that threaten our individual freedoms.
As Americans, we tend to idolize the first dimension of freedom. But the truth is, if we don't also celebrate and practice the second dimension, if we don't work together to push back against the forces of corporatism and autocracy and oligarchy, we will eventually lose both dimensions of our freedom.
On this Labor Day, then, consider the work of the labor movement and of labor unions to protect our freedoms and to stand up for everyday workers.
Labor unions – protectors of both dimensions of freedom.
A guest commentary by Tom Louderback
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