Simile Sunday: Labor Edition

First, a moment of explanation, Bill is in California this weekend, where apparently the Internet hasn’t been invented yet.  As such, he will be unable to provide you with his comedy stylings in the form of similes.  So you get me twice.  Feel free to celebrate or mourn as you see fit.

I’m sure most of you are excited for Labor Day tomorrow…sorry, forgot my English-to-Canadian Translator…Labour Day, where we celebrate the workers that form the backbones of our respective countries before sending them back to smelt, weld, or sit in front of a computer all day, as is their custom.  There will be parades, and maybe some speeches, especially around here where unions have been hit hard in recent years.  But all in all, Labour Day has been largely divorced from its original intent here in the US.  It was designed largely as a salve to make up for the appalling treatment suffered by workers and unions at the hands of their employers, something that’s hardly discussed today.

The Pullman Strike is like the Federal League

In 1894, the Pullman Palace Car Company was the premium supplier of railway cars to the U.S.  It employed thousands of workers, many of whom lived on company property and shopped at company stores.  During, however, the economic panic of 1893, demand for new cars fell off.  The company unilaterally cut its employees’ wages while doing nothing reduce rent or decrease prices of food and goods in their stores.  When management refused to meet with representatives of their workers, the whole company struck, as did 125,000 other workers on 29 railroads who refused to work on Pullman cars.  Railroad service in the Western half of the United States ground to a halt.

That June, Eugene V. Debs, the head of the American Railway Union (and who would later become America’s leading Socialist), organized a protest to garner additional support that turned violent and actually derailed a locamotive.  President Grover Cleveland sent in US Marshals and approximately 12,000 US Army troops to quell the strike, arguing that it interfered with the delivery of mail and was a threat to public safety.  Over the course of the next few days, 13 workers were killed and 57 wounded in the fighting.

In the aftermath, Cleveland created Labor Day in the US to appease the workers’ movements, but it didn’t save him.  His re-nomination was blocked, in part, by the Governor of Illinois.  Over the ensuing years, salaries rose and work-weeks got shorter, and unions became strong advocates for workers’ rights.

Like the handful of players revolts befor it, the Federal League also was largely unsuccessful.  The Federal League grew out of John T Powers’ Columbian League, and began play in 1914.  Because it hadn’t signed the National Agreement restricting player movement, owners felt justified in raiding some of the bigger stars from the Major Leagues.  Hall of Famers Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Edd Roush, Three-Finger Browns, and Joe Tinker joined up.  So too did once or future stars Benny Kauff, Ted Easterly, Al Bridwell, Lee Magee, Ed Konetchy, Hal Chase, CLaude Hendrix, Jack Quinn, Ed Reulbach, Howie Kamnitz, and more.

As a result, player salaries rose dramatically for a short time.  But after 1915, Major League Baseball bought out several of the Federal League franchises, and invited two of the league’s owners to take over struggling MLB franchises.  With the Federal League in shambles, the reserve clause was again in full effect, a source for competition was eliminated, and salaries crashed.  The brief revolt became a large part of the national memory without having an obvious direct impact on game itself over the long term.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is like the Black Sox Scandal.

But if you look hard enough at what happened in the wake of the Federal League, you’ll see how the Federal League ended up rocking the foundations of the game.  As salaries were slashed, ballplayers who had grown accustomed to a better class of living.  But with cheapskate owners like Charles Comiskey able to dictate salaries to them, many ballplayers began looking elsewhere for income.  As Bill James points out in his New Historical Baseball Abstract,

“You have to know two things to understand what happened.  Number one, there was a generation of players to whom baseball made a lot of promises which it didn’t keep.  And number two, every baseball headline in the decade had a dollar sign attached to it….The biggest stars in the game, including Babe Ruth, were auctioned from one set of fans to another for whatever they would bring, and then ordered to report to camp for a fifth or a tenth of that amount.

It is a hard thing to know that another man is making money off of your labor, and has no intention of dealing favorably with you….The arch-villain of this villainous era was Charles Albert Comiskey.  He had no reason in the world not to deal fairly with his players.  The White Sox drew the largest crowds in baseball…yet the White Sox were one of the lowest-paying teams.  Comiskey held all the power in the relationship between owner and players, and he had to rub their noses in it.  Other than the Black Sox, many or most of the dishonest players-at least those who were exposed-were refugees from the Federal League.”

Indeed, as players were squeezed, they began selling games.  It wasn’t right, but it’s also not entirely difficult to understand.  Comiskey and the rest of the owners were getting rich, and not sharing the wealth with the talented contractors (with a very specific skill set) who made it possible.  Owners were not adhering at all to the laws of supply and demand.  So players took control of their own careers and ultimately almost drove baseball off a cliff.  But in the wake of the scandal, baseball began to address at least some of its labor imbalances.  Salaries rose in the 1920s with the improving economy and remained relatively strong.  They at least weren’t desperate enough to sell games anymore, especially with the threat of a lifetime ban hanging over their heads.

Like ballplayers, workers gradually saw some of their lots improved by the labor unrest, but change did not come quickly for many, especially immigrants.  Business owners continued to treat their employees as second class citizens and to disregard their safety.  In 1911, the Triange Shirtwaist Factory caught fire in New York City.  what started as a fire in a scrap bin (that had not been cleaned out for two months) quickly became a huge blaze.  Many employees were able to escape.  But 146 men and women were trapped on the 9th floor becuse their employers had locked the door to prevent employee theft.  With no way to escape, all 146 were either burned alive or jumped to their deaths from open windows.

In an incredible miscarriage of justice, both factory owners (who had ordered the doors locked) were acquitted on first and second degree manslaughter charges, and actually made money thanks to the insurance settlement.  One of them was later fined $20 for again locking the doors to his factory to keep workers inside.

But the good news is that the labor movement in New York City was spurred into action.  The women’s labor movement gained significant momentum.  Safety Engineers became commonplace and the state’s labor laws were modernized.  More than 200 additional factories with unsafe working conditions were identified and forced to comply with the new laws.  Tragedy bred opportunity and a better world for both workers and ballplayers.  And we should celebrate the sacrifices and movements that made that possible.

The Common Man writes for The Platoon Advantage and fights The Man on Twitter.