It’s not the downtrodden, but public employees
The irony of Labor Day is that the holiday, intended for blue-collar workers intent on swelling their numbers and union affiliation, never really materialized. Instead, the beneficiaries of the holiday, established by federal law in 1894, were government workers who were among the most despised then and earlier in the nation’s history. For public workers have not only swelled their numbers, currently 17 percent of total American workers, but their union membership, 37 percent, is 5 times higher than workers in private-sector jobs. At no time in American history did non-government workers achieve more than 20 percent of their numbers in unions.
From earliest times, government workers bore universal enmity because their pay and hours of work were better than private-sector employees, and supervision over them was poor, meaning they could do little work and still keep their jobs. President George Washington was the first to rail about his subordinates, becoming a master of details on even minor employees. He wrote nasty letters to officeholders who failed to do their work with dispatch, suggesting that they shape up or ship out. His executive officers never reached the performance level he expected, no matter his exhortations to them. “Let me, in a friendly way, impress the following maxims . In all important matters, to deliberate maturely, but to execute promptly and vigorously. And not to put things off until the Morrow which can be done, and require to be done today. Without an adherence to these rules, business never will be well done, or done in an easy manner, but will always be in arrear, with one thing treading upon the heels of another.”
Americans sought government jobs like crazy because of the good pay and low expectations. Most 19th-century presidents were besieged daily by office-seekers, as illustrated by two entries from the diary of James K. Polk:
“Wednesday, 1st July, 1846: Had a crowd of visitors until 12 o’clock today. The importunity for office it would seem will never cease. There were many visitors this morning upon the patriotic errand of seeking office for themselves. My mind was occupied about more important matters, and I gave them no countenance.
“Thursday, 3rd September, 1846: Saw no company until 12 o’clock today. A number of persons called at that hour . What is very remarkable, not a single office-seeker made his appearance, a thing which I believe has not happened before any day since I have been President .”
Recall that one office-seeker who didn’t get a position killed President James A. Garfield in 1881. A successful office-seeker under President Andrew Jackson stole everything but the kitchen sink. Samuel Swartwout served as collector of customs at the port of New York, where nearly two-thirds of all imports entered the United States. In eight years in office, it was revealed after he left office and fled abroad, that he had stolen a grand total of $1,225,705.29. To give you some idea of how big that sum was, the total income of the federal government in 1837, Jackson’s last year in office, was about $25 million. So, Swartwout’s cut was more than 4 percent.
Of course, there were investigations galore by the Treasury and House of Representatives, which revealed that Swartwout’s clerks knew all about his money machinations. One clerk indicated he kept it under wraps because he “was Mr. Swartwout’s clerk, and would not betray the secrets of my employer.” That was the party line for another aide who argued that “we clerks of the customhouse consider ourselves as in the service of the collector, and not in the service of the United States.”
As for Swartwout, he copped a plea, and a federal court reduced the amount he stole by $435,052.21 on the condition he forfeit all his personal property, which still was woefully short in terms of the remaining dough he owed. In return, he was assured he would not be prosecuted. So Swartwout returned to the United States in 1841 and lived happily ever after until his death in 1856.
Federal workers with even modest jobs recognized they were on a gravy train. “We are fixed with every convenience,” wrote Virginia Grigsby, who worked in the Dead Letter Branch of the Post Office Department in 1883. “Long desks, easy revolving stools, plenty of servants and no specific amount of work to be done.” At a time when industrial workers put in 10-hour days, six days a week, the typical workday of a government employee was nice and easy, 9 to 4, with time off for lunch. Vacations were usually an entire month.
Even after the first federal civil service law was effected in 1883, designed to make merit rather than politics the hallmark of job acquisition, the issue of the expanding government workforce, especially in the past 50 years, drew continued public antipathy. Of course, government itself aided and abetted the negative feelings, as illustrated by incidents such as snowstorms or other untoward acts of nature or politics. In such crises, “nonessential” federal workers would be excused from reporting to work. The logical question would be: If they’re nonessential, why would they have a job in the first place?
Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.