Monday, September 18, 2006

A Labor of Love: The Truth About Labor Day

Left: A mass Labor movement somehow lost in the crossroads of class mobility - a subterfuge of the sacrifices and pledges of workers' rights.

The first Monday in September is Labor Day in the United States -- a national holiday established more than a century ago to honor the American worker. Americans typically spend the day away from work, enjoying picnics in the park or visiting the beach or swimming pools on what for many is the last holiday of the summer vacation season.

In every country today except Canada, the United States, and South Africa, May 1st is the day the struggles and contributions of workers are celebrated. And so it was in America until that day became associated with "radicalism."

In 1889, during the First (Paris) Congress of the Second Socialist International, May First was selected as a day for international celebration of the worker, no matter what day of the week it fell on. May first was chosen in commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre which occurred in Chicago in 1886. The elite in the US worked dilligently to distance the American worker movement from its international context. Henceforth, May Day in the US has been associated with radicalism.

After a number of suggestions from labor leaders for the establishment of a unique American "labor day" celebration, Grover Cleveland, a strong anti-labor president (who was seeking re-election and needed the union vote) agreed to a law establishing September 5th as Labor Day. This concession seemed motivated by a desire to distance American workers from the leftist political leanings of May Day celebrators worldwide, and to wrestle control away from workers and put it in the hands of government. In 1894, the first Monday in September was established as a federal holiday in the United States.

Left: Chicago Knights of Labor organized workers for an 8-hour day.

The observation of Labor Day is rooted in the Haymarket Massacre of 1886.

On May 1, 1886, Albert Parsons, head of the Chicago Knights of Labor, led 80,000 people through the city’s streets in support of the eight-hour day. In the next few days they were joined nationwide by 350,000 workers who went on strike at 1,200 factories.

The nation-wide strike for the 8-hour workday began May 1, 1886. In the following days of the strike at the McCormick Reaper Works, violence erupted between police and strikers on May 3, where two workers were shot. The May 4th rally at the Haymarket Square was held to protest the events of May 3rd.

Left:Advertising-flyer for the Haymarket rally.

A mass meeting was held in the Chicago haymarket to protest the deadly police action of the previous day. The rally began about 8:30 p.m. May 4 at the Haymarket, a site on Randolph between Halsted and Des Plaines Street, but due to low attendance it was moved a half block away to Des Plaines Street north of Randolph Street. After 10 p.m., as the rally drew to a close, 176 policemen led by Inspector John Bonfield moved in demanding immediate dispersal of the remaining 200 workers. Suddenly a bomb exploded. In the chaos that followed shots were fired by police and perhaps by workers. One police officer was killed by the bomb, six officers died later and sixty others were injured. No official count was made of civilian deaths or injuries probably because friends and/or relatives carried them off immediately. Medical evidence later showed that most of the injuries suffered by the police were caused by their own bullets.

Left:Lithograph of the Haymarket massacre.

All well known organizers, socialists and anarchists were rounded up and arrested in the days following the massacre. Thirty one of them were named in criminal indictments and eight held for trial.

Left: Police arrest leading Union orginazers and Worker activists.

Although the bomb thrower has never been identified the eight indicted men were convicted by a court which held that the "inflammatory speeches and publications" of these eight incited the actions of the mob. The Illinois and U.S. Supreme Courts upheld the verdict.

On November 11, 1887 four of the accused were hanged. One committed suicide in jail, two had their sentences commuted to life in prison and one remained in prison even though there was no case against him.


Left:The five men are, clockwise from 1:00 o'clock: A. R. Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, August Spies, and Louis Lingg, in the middle.

The first four were hanged on Friday, November 11, 1887. Lingg committed suicide on November 10, 1887 detonating dynamite in his mouth.

Labor Day a May Day Alternative

"There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!" -- Spoken by August Spies, one of the hanged.

Left: Workers gather at the Haymarket Massacre site more than a century later to commemorate the sacrifices of the fallen.

It's easy to forget that US workers had to literally fight for their rights to a decent wage and improved working conditions -- and many lost their lives trying to organize. The major figures in industry at that time utilized violent union-busting tactics to maintain control and obtain maximum profitability.

Left:Depiction of a 1932 workers' rally on May Day.

As late as 1932, many workers were still celebrating May 1 as the day of labor struggles, despite the government's efforts to shift emphasis to the 5th of September. The association between May 1st and socialism increasingly, became uncomfortable for unions, industrialists and government alike.

On this Labor Day, the memory of those millions who took to the streets in opposition to capital, interest and speculation's stranglehold lives on. They viewed Capital as the enemy of the worker, the enemy of the immigrant, the enemy of all freedom loving people. They rejected its wars, its governments, its immigration laws, and its exploitation and degradation of life. True, many things have changed in the past century however, these presumptuous relations remain.

In our day, labor unions in the United States face a very uncertain future. Membership has declined dramatically. Unionized workers make up only about eight percent of the private-sector labor force.

The villification of the Haymarket massacre led unions away from the radicalism around the turn of the 20th century. American unions allowed themselves to be manipulated -- and co-opted - and that even the establishment of Labor Day was a sign capital won out against labor. The strategy of capitalists have historically, been to make concession in a way that divides labor, divides the people on the street.

The American Labor Day has been made separate from the May Day. So, right away, those who want to celebrate May Day are fighting with those who want to celebrate Labor Day. Those who want to think of the labor movement as part of an international struggle for workers' rights and economic democracy are separated from those who want Labor Day as an American institution. If you don't celebrate that day, you're 'anti-American.' If you do celebrate that day, you're denying the internationalism of labor.

The civilizing advances we enjoy, when it comes to working people – child labor laws, collective bargaining rights, Social Security, Medicare, decent and secure pensions, etc., - were fought for by worker movements. Therefore, we should build on their sacrifices so that we the people, the workers will seize control of our own lives, workplaces, and communities.


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