By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
Looking back at aviation and automobiles in Kansas 100 years ago, and with another Labor Day just finished, a review of labor relations proves interesting.
By the Nineteen-Teens, our state had become a leader in progressive labor relations including working conditions, safety and limited-hour workdays.
The original Labor Day was instituted by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, six days after a strike by Pullman workers resulted in deaths, injuries and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.
Cleveland may have been trying to placate unions after crushing the strike, or perhaps he called for a “Labor Day” to disassociate labor celebrations from solidarity activities of May Day.
The president wanted to give the labor movement a more positive emphasis – and today the holiday has evolved mostly to a long last-of-summer weekend, hot dogs and retail store sales.
Since the 1880s, unions had gained strength and Kansas had taken an interventionist role through legislation. It operated a Board of Railroad Commissioners, and created a Labor Bureau to collect information and apply pressure to correct injustices and arbitrate.
Then-Governor John Martin personally met with strikers and company representatives to reach solutions, years before Theodore Roosevelt began the practice on a national level. Martin’s belief was that it wasn’t just the companies and their employees, but the general public, that needed consideration when disputes arose. While the governor’s response was favorable to unions, public reaction to strikes was negative as folks were frightened by the violence, work stoppages and seizure of equipment and property by unions.
By 1916, labor unions in Kansas were proud of gains made and relations were fairly harmonious between state government and labor. However, there were sporadic strikes in southeast Kansas coal fields, and tensions flared again after World War I. In 1919 Governor Henry Allen called for the creation of the Kansas Court of Industrial Relations to protect the public from the quarrels of business and labor.
Allen called labor “an organized minority” that should not be allowed to be “greater than government itself.” When a strike of coal miners was called in the dead of winter, he sent a militia that took over 200 mines to keep coal flowing to citizens. The conflict, however, became focused more between the court and unions, and soon the court was viewed not as an arbitrator but a labor-hater.
Ultimately, in 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Kansas court was overstepping the rights of both business and workers.
In this history there are two points of identification for me. My mother’s family worked the mines of southeast Kansas and northeast Oklahoma, some who were union members and others who went to work as “scabs” during strikes.
Later. when I was trying to earn money for college, we lived in Kansas, a right-to-work state. But unions on the Kansas-Missouri border were so strong the construction bosses would hire only carpenters and laborers who belonged to unions.
Historically, tensions have always existed between the rights of employees and employers, as well as the role of government and economy on behalf of citizens’ welfare.
The union movement is not as strong as it once was, when workers felt they had no other way to assert their rights. The struggle continues between collectivism and individual freedoms.