Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day

The first Labor Day celebration was a parade organized in 1882 by New York City's Knights of Labor. By 1894, it had become a federal holiday, and is perhaps better known today as sort of a traditional end to summer, although the autumn equinox is still almost three weeks away.

In over 20 years of being active in labor unions, I have become convinced that most American workers have little sense of their own history, which has resulted in an attitude that you can't fight management, that the boss has always won and always will, which in turn has led to the belief that any benefits workers receive is due almost totally to the benevolence of management, and also to skepticism that workers can make any gains from organized action. I present this brief list of events in American labor history as a reminder that you can fight the boss, and sometimes even win, and also as a tribute to the struggles of those before us who sacrificed so we could enjoy this long weekend of leisure.

Tompkins Square Riot (1874). Thousands of unemployed New Yorkers demonstrating in Tompkins Square Park were brutally dispersed by police.

Pennsylvania coal mine strikes (1870's). A series of strikes plagued the Pennsylvania coal-mining region in the 1870's. Authorities blamed an Irish immigrant group, the Molly Maguires. In 1877, ten of the group were hanged.

Haymarket Riot (1886). In Chicago on May 3, 1886, violence broke out between union workers at McCormick Reaper and police. The incident left a union worker dead and many others injured. 3,000 assembled in Haymarket Square the next day to protest the actions of the police. Towards the end of the demonstration, a bomb was thrown in the direction of policemen there to keep order; eight policemen were killed in the blast. Authorities rounded up eight anarchists and charged them with the murders, although there was no evidence that any of them actually threw the bomb. Four were eventually executed. To this day no one knows the identity of who threw the Haymarket Square bomb.

Thibodaux Massacre (1887). 35 unarmed black sugar cane workers striking for a dollar-a-day wage were shot by Louisiana militiamen.

Homestead Strike (1892). In Homestead, Pennsylvania, striking union steelworkers engaged in an all-day battle with Pinkerton strikebreakers. Three Pinkertons and seven steelworkers were killed in the violence.

Pullman Strike (1894) After the Pullman Company slashed worker's wages, the membership of the American Railway Union refused to work trains that included Pullman cars. The Army was called in to get the trains running again, with considerable violence and vandalism resulting.

Virden miner's strike (1898). Virden, Illinois coal mine owners attempt to break a strike by importing 200 nonunion black workers. The resulting violence left 14 dead and 25 wounded.

Idaho miners' strikes (1899). A series of miners strikes in Idaho led to President McKinley calling in the Army to restore order.

Cripple Creek strike (1903). A series of miner's strikes led to martial law imposed upon the Cripple Creek region in Colorado during 1903-04.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (1911). 146 people, mostly women and young girls, died in a New York garment factory fire. The doors were kept locked at the factory in order to keep the workers from leaving the job site. The factory owners were eventually indicted for manslaughter.

Bread And Roses Strike (1912). Female garment workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts went on strike to protest a pay cut. The resulting police violence led to an international outcry, and the strikers won a major pay raise as a result.

Henry Ford gives a raise (1914). Henry Ford raises the pay of his assembly line workers to $5 for an eight-hour day, saying that anyone who builds a Ford should have enough money to pay for one.

Ludlow Massacre (1914). Colorado militiamen attack a striking miner's camp at Ludlow, Colorado, killing five men, two women, and 12 children.

Joe Hill arrested (1915). Labor leader Joe Hill was arrested in Salt Lake City on trumped-up charges of murder. Despite worldwide protests and the efforts of President Wilson to intervene, he was executed 21 months later.

Bisbee Copper Strike (1917). Over 1000 copper miners in Bisbee, Arizona were herded into boxcars and "deported" into the New Mexico desert in response to a strike calling for better wages, safer working conditions, and an end to discrimination against foreign and minority workers.

Adamson Act upheld by Supreme Court (1917). This act, giving railroad workers the right to an eight-hour workday, was passed by Congress to avert a strike. This law was the forerunner of legislation creating the standard eight-hour workday.

The Battle of Matewan (1920). When the United Mine Workers organized the mines around Matewan, West Virginia, the mining company responded by hiring armed detectives to drive the miners from their homes. Miners responded with gunfire, leading to the death of the mayor, two miners, and seven detectives. Fifteen months later, detectives assassinated the pro-union police chief, leading over 5000 miners to take up arms, confronting state troopers and federal authorities in what became known as "The Battle Of Blair Mountain".

Auto-Lite Strike (1934). In Toledo, Ohio, workers at the Auto-Lite plant seeking recognition for the UAW were met by National Guardsmen. Two strikers were killed and over 200 wounded.

The Wagner Act (1935). The federal government establishes the right of workers to join a union.

Battle Of The Overpass (1937). Walter Reuther and other UAW supporters attempting to distribute leaflets at Ford's River Rouge plant are beaten up by security men from the Ford Service Department.

Fair Labor Standards Act (1938). This legislation establishes the eight-hour day, overtime pay, and the minimum wage.

Taft-Hartley Act (1947). This act greatly broadened the power of the federal government to intervene in strikes. President Truman vetoed it, but Congress overrode his veto.

Truman seizes the steel mills (1952). In order to avert a strike, President Truman orders the Army to seize America's steel mills. The Supreme Court rules that Truman overstepped his authority.

AFL-CIO merger (1955). The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merge to form the nation's largest labor organization.

Equal Pay Act (1963). This act requires that men and women working in the same job within the same workplace be paid equally for their labor.

Delano Grape Strike (1965-70). Workers in the California grape fields, led by Cesar Chavez, battle grape growers for their rights. The growers eventually recognize the United Farm Workers as their bargaining agent.

PATCO strike (1981). Striking air traffic control workers are fired by President Reagan.

Pittston strike (1989). Miners strike the Pittston Coal Company for over a year after new owners attempt to break the union.

That's only some of the highlights; a search of American labor history will reveal many more rich stories.

In closing, a few words from Abraham Lincoln:

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

Those words were radical at the time Lincoln delivered them to Congress in 1861. I cannot imagine a major American political leader who would be willing to make such a statement today.

Happy Labor Day.

(Crossposted at Watching Those We Chose.)