My grandfather, Jose Maria Saenz, came to America in 1882, the year of the first Labor Day parade in New York City. He came to Texas from the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon where work was scarce and salaries seldom matched the hard work.
His older brothers had settled in Benavides, Texas, a small ranching and agricultural community in South Texas. He would spend much of his life in those fields and ranches.
Although my grandfather came to be with his family, he never returned to his birthplace as he considered economic opportunities in America superior to those of Mexico.
In the first Labor Day parade in New York, ten thousand workers took an unpaid day off to march for the rights of workers. These rights included decent wages and working conditions. In all the workplaces, which included factories, steel mills, mines and sweatshops, men and women worked twelve hour days with no paid holidays or benefits.
U.S Department of Labor data from the 1880s shows an average wage of $1.34 daily with an annual income of $345. Thus, in some cases, workers earned pennies per hour. The exploitation of children, as young as eight and nine years of age, was common in most industries, especially in the mines and mill works. Children earned an average of $8.00 per month for a sixty-hour week of work or 240 hours.
Ranch work was no easier. My grandfather, who worked with cattle and horses, was up at sunrise, usually by five in the morning, and worked until sunset. A Texas wage report for that time period shows that ranch hands made $30 per month in the 1880s, with housing and food included, which would average about $1.15 a day for a six day week. However, many ranch hands were always on the job. The ranch hands often drove cattle to market, which meant little home life for weeks or months at a time. They ate and slept, rain or shine, under an open sky.
The salary for ranch hands actually seems a bit high given that the same Texas report showed male teachers earning $72.00 per year, while women teachers earned only $54.50. Thus male teachers earned $8.00 per month for nine months with no salary during the summer months while women teachers earned $6 per month!
In the 1880s, numerous labor demonstrations on the East Coast turned violent as protestors and police clashed in the streets. Some labor organizers believed a holiday and celebration was needed and they pushed for a special day to recognize, in their words, the “social and economic achievements of American workers.”
By 1894, Texas had joined 23 other states in adopting the holiday. That year the U.S. Congress passed Labor Day legislation making the first Monday in September a legal holiday.
There is irony to the fact that my grandfather’s family came to Texas in the year of great labor unrest in America. The workers who marched in New York in 1882 were actually protesting several incidents whereby police had shot and killed labor protestors in strikes and demonstrations. The demonstrations and strikes led to greater organization of labor and the rise of several charismatic labor leaders. These labor leaders paved the way for later formation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) labor organizations. These organizations were able to eventually succeed in limiting the number of hours that employers could demand of workers and end the use of child labor.
U.S. Department of Labor data actually shows a slight increase in wages for blue collar workers in America over the following years when labor organizations gained strength in the decade of the 1880s.
Labor organizations also made possible the expansion of work opportunities for women. Today women still do not earn the same wages as men, but many industries are catching up. An example of this is in the nursing profession where wages have increased substantially over the last fifty years and where there seems to be greater equity between male and female nurses.
Fields such as nursing did not have strong labor affiliations, but as wages increased for skilled blue collar and service workers, nurses did better financially. No doubt, salary gains came at a snail’s pace. Nurses who averaged $3-$5 daily for 20 hour shifts in 1908 still only earned $140 per month in 1950, or $35 per week.
In the last 20 years, the nursing profession has made significant gains, as nurses today average $68,000 annually nationally. There is currently a high demand for health profession workers, and many hospitals have problems finding enough well trained and skilled healthcare providers.
The high demand for nurses in California today is such that the average hourly wage is $45, while the annual average wage has risen to $94,120. Other states that are losing nursing staff to California are making salary adjustments.
Thus workers have made significant gains over the past century which calls for a celebration. Labor Day is when we barbecue and say good bye to the summer, but this holiday is also the day when we thank all the workers in the past who made it possible for us to afford the grill and steaks.