Monday, September 01, 2014

The turbulent origins of organized labor, and of Labor Day

Peter Rachleff, via Nick Cooper at Free Press Houston with the history lesson.  Embedded hyperlinks are mine.

Monday, September 1, will mark the 120th celebration of  Labor Day as a legal, national holiday. What is the history of the Labor Day holiday? It had a turbulent, complicated beginning. Understanding more about this can help us to rethink the significance of this holiday today.

American labor in 1894 was a volatile force. The industrial revolution had radically transformed work, replacing skilled labor with machines, and giving birth to two powerful new institutions: factories and corporations. The economy had been rocked by deep depressions -- 1873-1878; 1883-1886; 1893-1896 -- when millions lost their jobs and millions more experienced wage cuts. Massive numbers of immigrants -- an average of half a million a year between 1880 and WWI -- arrived and applied for the low paid, dangerous unskilled jobs that were available. After the brief experiment in political and economic democracy called “Reconstruction” (1867-1877), the four million freed slaves, their descendants, and their northern relatives found themselves stripped of their newly-won rights, from the ballot box and the workplace to the school room and public transportation. Women’s suffrage advocates, who had hoped that the ending of slavery would quickly be followed by the extension of voting (and other) rights to women, were deeply disappointed. None of these developments took place without a struggle, and there were strikes, protests, marches, and rallies continuously in the last decades of the century.

Most people know something of the more recent labor-management clashes of the titans, thanks to the legacy of Jimmy Hoffa.  That's only the most recent half of the history.

In the summer of 1877, a strike against wage cuts (for many, their third reduction since 1873) among railroad workers from Martinsburg, West Virginia, to St. Louis and Chicago. Tens of thousands, from highly skilled engineers to largely black and immigrant track-layers, struck. In some places, strikers fought with other workers, who were desperate enough to cross picket lines. When several state militias were called out to protect the strikebreakers, violent clashes ensued and there were deaths on both sides. In some places, militia members refused to fire on workers and they put down their weapons and joined the protestors. For 45 days, the nation’s rail traffic, the heart of its transportation system, was disrupted.

While the railroad strike did not succeed, it had planted new ideas about organizing and strategy among workers. In the 1880s, as the economy recovered, a new labor organization, called the Knights of Labor, swept the country. It took in the unskilled as well as the skilled, immigrants as well as native born, women as well as men, and black as well as white. Its motto was “An Injury to One is the Concern of All,” and, in many communities, its members actually practiced what they preached.

Entirely a populist movement, without discrimination... except against those who would subjugate them for their own avarice.

Activists in the Knights, frustrated with long hours (many workers toiled twelve-hour days), low pay, little political voice, and general social disregard, hatched a radical new idea: that all workers should strike on May 1, 1886, for a universal eight-hour day, and that none would return to work until all had achieved the new standard. This dramatic, unified action would not only bring them the demands they wanted, it would transform their relationships with each other across the country, and it would change the ways they were perceived by the dominant culture. A lot was at stake. Three hundred forty thousand people walked off their jobs on May 1, and their numbers grew each day.

This struggle came to a climax at the country’s largest factory: the McCormick Harvester Works in Chicago. There, Knights of Labor activists used rallies and picket lines at the plant gates to appeal to all the workers, especially the newly hired immigrants in the unskilled jobs, to join the great strike. On May 4, the Chicago police moved in, accused the union leaders of holding rallies without a permit, and ordered the crowd to disperse. Someone threw a bomb into the ranks of the police, who in turn opened fire on the crowd. Seven police and four strikers died, and many more people were injured. The leaders of the strike were arrested and put on trial for murder. Eight were convicted; four of them were hanged. This repression sent a chill through the new labor movement, but it also made martyrs out of the strike leaders, and it made May 1st a labor holiday throughout the world, including parts of the United States.

Google Haymarket Affair for more on the carnage.  And note once again the comparisons to the present day: police brutality associated with the protection of large companies against the working class, who sought only fairness for their labor.

Among railroad workers, employed by the country’s largest corporations, labeled “robber barons” by the newspapers, a new organization, the American Railway Union, led by a charismatic speaker, Eugene V. Debs, gathered all railroad workers together into one industrial union. In April 1894, facing the kind of wage cuts which had spurred the 1877 upheaval, ARU members struck James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. This conflict led to a showdown in Saint Paul, MN where a striker, Charlie Luth, was shot and killed by a strikebreaker outside an East Side boardinghouse. Charles Pillsbury, head of the huge flour milling company, called Hill and Debs together and mediated a settlement, in which Hill rescinded the 10% wage cut he had imposed. Railroad workers around the country were inspired -- and sprang into action.

In June, the workers who built Pullman (sleeping) cars in a Chicago suburb called “Pullman” (a company town in which the employer owned the houses, picked the police, and controlled the schools and stores) rebelled when their wages were cut 25% but their rents were not reduced. They sent word to Debs and asked to join the ARU. Debs welcomed them in, and then called on railroad workers across the country to boycott Pullman cars; that is, refuse to move any train which had a Pullman car in it. Some 125,000 railroad workers joined what was in effect a nationwide railroad strike. President Grover Cleveland called out the National Guard to police the railroad yards and the roundhouses, but they could not force the strikers to return to work. Pullman’s corporate attorney, Richard Olney, the former Attorney General of the United States, went to court for a federal injunction ordering an end to the strike. The grounds? The strikers were interfering with the shipment of the nation’s mail! (Most trains had not only Pullman cars but also U.S. mail cars.) The federal judge issued the court order -- the first ever federal injunction against a strike -- and ordered Debs to call off the strike. When Debs refused, the judge found him in contempt and sent him to prison, where he spent the next eighteen months. In a matter of days, the strikers went back to work.

Debs became a Socialist while he was incarcerated, and ran for president of the United States five times, the last in 1920 from a different jail cell (he was imprisoned that time for refusing to be conscripted for WWI).  He received almost one million votes that year, 3.4% of the total cast.  That remains the high-water mark for Socialist presidential candidates in the United States ... not counting, you know, Barack Obama.

It was within this context that President Cleveland asked Congress to pass legislation (which he signed in 1894) making the first Monday in September “Labor Day.” With one hand, he allowed the country’s greatest labor leader to sit in a prison cell, while, with the other, he created a national holiday celebrating labor. Cleveland was also careful to direct workers’ celebration away from May 1st, which had become an international labor day. He took his cue from the New York City Central Labor Union, which had been celebrating an early September “Labor Day” since 1882. A number of other city and state labor organizations had followed this example. They stayed away from the May 1st date because it had been so badly tainted by the anti-radical backlash that swept over the country and the labor movement in the late 1880s. And so early September seemed an acceptable option to the president, his advisors, and the political establishment.

There's more, but to bring things forward to within the past 25 years...

Over the next century, the vitality of Labor Day ebbed and flowed with the overall energy and life of the labor movement. After a rather quiet 1920s, Labor Day revived in the 1930s and 1940s only to fade in significance in the 1950s and 1960s. In the tumultuous 1980s and early 1990s, stimulated by PATCO, Hormel, Staley, Caterpillar, the Chicago and Detroit newspapers, and the struggle against the North American Free Trade Agreement, not just picnics and parades, but also expressions of solidarity and militancy became widespread once again. These patterns were as apparent in Saint Paul as they were anywhere else.

Everything old is new again.  It was Harry Truman who said, "the only thing new in this world is the history that you don't know."  So very true.

Update: More from John Nichols at The Nation on the alarming notion that labor rights are also civil rights.

When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur and his aides encouraged the country to adopt a constitution designed to assure that Hideki Tojo’s militarized autocracy would be replaced with democracy. Fully aware that workers and their unions had a role to play in shaping the new Japan, they included language that explicitly recognized that “the right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed.”

When the United States occupied Germany after World War II, General Dwight David Eisenhower and his aides urged the Germans to write a constitution that would assure that Adolf Hitler’s fascism was replaced with muscular democracy. Recognizing that workers would need to organize and make their voices heard in the new nation, the Germans included a provision that explicitly declared: “The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession. Agreements that restrict or seek to impair this right shall be null and void; measures directed to this end shall be unlawful.”

When former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the International Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would in 1948 be adopted by the United Nations as a global covenant, Roosevelt and the drafters included a guarantee that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

For generations, Americans accepted the basic premise that labor rights are human rights. When this country counseled other countries on how to forge civil and democratic societies, Americans explained that the right to organize a trade union—and to have that trade union engage in collective bargaining as an equal partner with corporations and government agencies—had to be protected.

Now, with those rights under assault in America, it is wise, indeed, to recommit to the American ideal that working people must have a right to organize and to make their voices heard in a free and open society. As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said fifty years ago:
History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.

1 comment:

Gadfly said...

I also recommend this long, in-depth piece from Harold Meyerson. He notes what all led to unions' decline (including that unions themselves were far from blameless in it), and possible, partial, solutions: