Monday, September 3, 2012

Happy Labor Day!

Thanks to the workers who built this country!

Here's a little bit of US history regarding Labor Day and the labor movement:

During an economic depression in 1874 over 7,000 workers and unemployed people demonstrated for 8 hour workdays and government works projects rather than charity in Tompkins Square in New York City. However at the request of the NYPD the city revoked their permit to meet the night before the meeting without informing the participants. Police, many on horseback, descended on the crowd indiscriminately beating men, women and children with clubs. 46 were arrested, the bail set at $1000 each; organizers were charged with incitement to riot. Unions and labor organizations were not protected by the law at this time. Workplace safety requirements and worker's compensation were virtually nonexistent in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, so not only were demands for 8 hour workdays intended to allow workers to live more humane lives but also to reduce the staggering number of deaths and injuries suffered by the men, women and children who labored for 10-14 hours each day in mines, factories and railroads.
In 1882 the first US Labor Day was proposed by either of two union leaders, possibly after witnessing a labor festival in Canada. Pictured is a labor parade in New York's Union Square, 1882. Unlike the later International Worker's Day, or "May Day," Labor Day was about partying, resting, showing the spirit of workers and celebrating labor.
Pictured above is a 125th anniversary re-inactment of the Bay View Massacre of 1886 in which the Governor of Wisconsin ordered National Guardsmen to "shoot to kill" at a strike for an 8 hour workday. Of the crowd of men, women and children 7 were killed, including a 13-year-old child, and many more were injured.
A peaceful rally for an 8 hour workday turned violent when an unknown person threw a bomb. Police opened fire; several policemen and demonstrators were killed. The incident became internationally notorious when labor organizers were put on trial for conspiracy to throw the bomb, despite evidence that they did not. Four were executed that year. The Haymarket Massacre, as the incident became known, inspired the International Worker's Day, or "May Day," a separate event from Labor Day.
In 1887 in Thibodaux, LA, over 10,000 sugar cane workers-- about 90% of whom were Black-- struck for included a raise to $1.25 per day, biweekly payments, and payment in legal US tender instead of "pasteboard tickets," or company scrip that were good only at company stores. Following the appeal of plantation owners, including one Mr. McEnery who pled, "God Almighty has himself drawn the color line," local whites attacked the Black strikers; the death toll is unknown, ranging from nearly 40 to over 300, all of them Black men, women and children. The "Thibodaux Massacre" was one of the bloodiest labor struggles in US history. American, particularly Southern, union and labor activities would become fraught with racial resentment and discrimination within the movement while also marking some of the first major collaborations between whites and blacks, and between men and women, leaving a profound mark on lower-class society and exacerbating the fears of the elite.
The Homestead Strike, though particularly egregious, bore the hallmarks of that period of labor history: Pennsylvania steel workers struck and Pinkerton "detectives" as well as government forces and state militia were called out to serve the Carnegie Steel company. These private services were typically thugs-for-hire employed by companies to break strikes through beatings, intimidation and illegal means without the companies being held liable, as well as to guard the scabs who were brought in to replace union workers. The Homestead Strike, however, became an actual battle as strikers took up arms against the Pinkerton men, firing on them to prevent them from landing. The strikers briefly occupied the plant but militia regained control of the Carnegie Steel Mill. Carnegie and Frick, who were in charge of the mill, refused to negotiate with the union and the entire town was placed under martial law. A New York anarchist unrelated to the strike arrived and attempted to shoot and stab Frick; Frick survived. Charges were brought against union leaders; it was a serious blow to the labor movement.

Though I cannot find who painted this, this portrays legendary US labor hero Mary "Mother" Jones, who in 1903 worked with child laborers to organize a "Children's Crusade" proclaiming, "We want to go to School and not the mines!" Because the companies owned stock in all major newspapers Jones could not persuade any to publish information in the struggles of child workers, who were paid less than adults and many of whom had been maimed in factories. Seeking publicity, Jones and the children marched from Pennsylvania to President Teddy Roosevelt's home in New York. The President refused to meet with Jones about child labor but Jones had succeeded in bringing the issue to public attention. She would continue to advocate for child workers her entire life. By the 1910s and 20s states began to pass laws limiting child labor and requiring compulsory education, but child labor was not ended nationwide until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Because of the Great Depression, adults were willing to work for the same low wages as children and pressure from the private sector finally let up enough that Congress was able to pass a labor law. 
A photograph of some of the women workers' corpses on the sidewalk following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City in 1911. The factory locked women inside to prevent them from taking breaks. The factory caught on fire and the workers were trapped inside; many jumped to their deaths outside windows and down elevator shafts. The tragedy galvanized the public in support of workplace safety regulations. The following year women organized a massive strike. Though women were sometimes excluded from larger unions they typically formed their own.

Alexander Palmer led the "Palmer Raids," in 1919 and 1920, in which accused anarchists and leftist radicals, many of whom were immigrants, were put on trial and/or deported. The Palmer Raids demonstrate what had become, by this time, a volatile mix of industrial exploitation of desperate immigrants which pitted already stigmatized groups of European immigrants against poor native US workers and also against each other; radical leftist ideas brought to the US by the enormous wave of Southeast European immigration; a wave of jingoism and xenophobia exacerbated by World War I; and the beginning of the "Red Scare."
 
This poster by Chris Stain commemorates the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, another incident in which a strike became an actual armed rebellion. West Virginia coal miners were particularly oppressed by the "company town" system in which the coal mining company literally owned the town in which its employees and their families lived: the houses, land, and businesses. Workers were paid in company scrip rather than US currency which was good only at company stores, which took advantage of the captive customer base by hiking up prices. Coal miners and their families often became indebted to the company through the system, unable to leave the company town either because they were indebted or because they had no money to use in the outside world. So striking coal miners were particularly at risk. Baldwin-Felts agents, similar to Pinkerton detectives, were brought in to beat strikers and evict families from their homes. A coal company lawyer explained, “It is like a servant lives at your house. If the servant leaves your employment, if you discharge him, you ask him to get out of the servants’ quarters. It is a question of master and servant.” When Baldwin-Felts agents murdered the police chief of the town, a former laborer who was sympathetic to the miners, an armed rebellion of over 13,000 people ensued, known as the Battle of Blair Mountain or sometimes the "Redneck War."

Wikipedia has put together a nice timeline of labor history from the 1700s up to the 1980s. Enjoy!

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