People to Remember on Labor Day

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

A diary from 2007, cross-posted at Daily Kos and Progressive Blue.

On this holiday there are so many Americans who deserve a moment of our time, the people who fought and died for the simplest benefits in an attempt to end a new form of American slavery. This relentless oppression is nothing new but it does seem to thrive in a country with the bloodiest history of labor of any industrialized nation. The Matewan Journals places the whole present day struggle in perspective.

Those of us at the bottom of the income scale are involved in a war. It is not a war of bullets, mortar shells, bombs and tanks, but it is a war just the same, and people are dying. We didn’t start this war. It is not a war with us but a war on us. We didn’t ask for it, we don’t want it, and if we could we’d sue for peace. It is not a war we can win in any final way, ever. We are outgunned, overmatched, and trapped in a swamp. The enemy controls our food, our shelter, our health, and our livelihoods. He rarely shows pity, breaks every truce within hours, and chips away at us every day as if we were emotionless blocks of ice he is hoping to whittle down until we just melt away.

The only advantage we the workers ever had was our numbers, there are far more of us then them. Most of the other advantages that Americans fought for seem to be gone now.

There may not be bullets pointed at the workers today but there were at one time. On Labor Day we should celebrate the lives of these great Americans who led the way to the New Deal. According to this timeline the early days of this nation seemed promising;

1778 – Printers take concerted action to win a wage increase.

1794 – Printers go on strike for shorter hours and higher pay in New York.

1794 – Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) organize for equal pay for equal work

1796 – Cabinet makers strike.

1797 – Carpenters in Philadelphia go on strike.

1799 – Cordwainers (shoemakers) go on strike.

But those carpenters who dressed as Indians to throw tea off a ship in Boston, spurred on by a pamphlet written to the working class named Common Sense, many of those Patriots who fought and died for a dream in a new agrarian society would be locked out of the pursuit of happiness by laissez-faire economics and competition with slaves for a living wage in a new nation where all men were created equal.  

Some of those first efforts to organize labor were just met with the blacklisting of the “upstarts” and the founding fathers who chose Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia to sign that Declaration of Independence, turned a blind eye.  The reality of the Revolution was it strongly favored the educated upper class and rang in an era of new elitist. We the people were forced to work for a slice of equality.

One hundred and eighty years ago the birth of the modern union began with the formation of the first American Trade Union. In 1827, the Mechanics Union of Trade Association of Philadelphia’s Preamble seems almost like it could have been written today;

When the disposition and efforts of one part of mankind to oppress another have become too manifest to be mistaken and too pernicious in their consequences to be endured, it has often been found necessary for those who feel aggrieved, to associate, for the purpose of affording to each other mutual protection from oppression.

The following year the world’s first labor party was formed;

Working Men’s Party, the world’s first labor party, put up slates for city and state officers and political platforms (opposition to banks, abolition of imprisonment for debt, right to sue for wages owed, abolition of sweatshops, 10 hour day, restrictions on child labor, free and equal public education and abolition of prison labor).

Unlike the European nations where the labor advances would find representation, a Labor Party never took off in this two party nation and the painful years of worker advocates lobbying to the elected servants of industry made very slow gains. The rules weren’t even based on supply and demand. Instead an economy based in greed where the workers where treated as commodities with prosperity rarely shared and most economic downturns paid for by the by the loyal workers.

It is hard to believe that a nation that won a war for independence on the backs of the common worker and wrote a Constitution that was “by the people and for the people” went on for almost two centuries before decent living conditions were accomplished for the American worker. The real founding fathers of the American working class were not hailed in the history books and their names are mostly forgotten.

But some should be remembered, at least on Labor Day. There was Andrew Carr Cameron who doesn’t even have a page on Wikipedia but he was an immigrant from England born in 1834 who worked as a printer in Chicago, where he became interested in the labor movement.

In the Workingmen’s Advocate, which he edited from 1864 to 1877, he strongly advocated independent political action by labor. Cameron helped found the National Labor Union in 1866 and was its delegate to the convention of the International Workingmen’s Association in Basel in 1869. He was president of the Chicago Trades Assembly, the Grand Eight Hour League, and the Illinois State Labor Association.

Standing alongside Andrew Carr Cameron in another city was another American hero who is also without a Wiki page. George McNeill should be remembered as the “father of the eight-hour movement.”

Beginning in 1847, ten-year-old George McNeill worked at a textile mill from 5:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night. The workers were allowed a 30-minute break for breakfast, 15 minutes for “luncheon privileges,” and 45 for dinner. In 1852 the new manager, John Derby, decided this was excessively generous and announced the elimination of the morning and afternoon breaks. On June 1st, 100 employees openly defied his orders; they left for their customary morning break and did not return. Derby fired them all. The following day, spinners, weavers, and workers in the carding room went out on strike.

The strike was fruitless for the employees in a nation where the rich industrialist ruled but young George McNeill was inspired to devote his life to the workers;

The striking workers tried to negotiate with Derby, but the mill owners brought in police guards and hired 50 Irish immigrants to operate the machinery. The strikers never won their demands; nor did they get their jobs back. The Derby strike would be considered a failure except that it launched the career of George McNeill. For the remainder of his life he would be at the center of every major effort on behalf of the working people of Massachusetts.

With the end of the Civil War, the drive for improved working conditions gained momentum. The National Labor Union, formed in 1864, enjoyed some success before it collapsed during the economic depression of 1868. Other labor organizations sprang up, but another long depression that began in 1873 undermined workers’ bargaining power. As McNeill put it, “an empty stomach can make no contracts.”

McNeill and other labor activists pressed on even when hard times made organizing difficult. By 1863 McNeill had moved from Amesbury to Boston; that year he co-founded the Grand Eight-Hour League. Five years later, the group became the Boston Eight-Hour League. George McNeill served as its president from 1869 to 1874.

George McNeill accomplishments in his selfless life included winning passage of a number of federal and state eight-hour laws that were rarely enforced. He established publications about the concerns of workers. Alongside Wendell Phillips, they lobbied the Massachusetts legislature to establish a Bureau of Labor Statistics where under George McNeill’s leadership; the bureau published some of the nation’s first studies on the condition of working people. He ushered in laws about child labor and laws providing education for full time workers between the ages of 10 and 15!

George McNeill joined and became the treasurer of District 30 (Massachusetts) for Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, an early Philadelphia labor organization that was based on a declaration of principles McNeill himself wrote.

In May 1886 thousands of union workers defied the Knights’ leadership and struck for an eight-hour day. Many of the strikes ended in appalling violence against the strikers. Frustrated working people all over the country turned to the newly formed American Federation of Labor (AFL), which promoted “pure and simple unionism.” George McNeill was one of them.

What Wikipedia does offer today on the home page is the story of the Hamlet chicken processing plant fire on September 3, 1991. An example of how little this nation is wiling to give to the workers since it is a repeat of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911.

It did shed some light on the way workers were treated and the public ignorance propelled by the owners and politicians were cast aside. While the 1909 Uprising of 20,000 and the Great Revolt was sparked by a short walkout of 20% of the workers from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was mostly sucessful, when the company that ignored any arbitration agreement managed to kill 146 workers, it forced the New York City government to enforce the safety laws that were already on the books and shed a positive light on the abused workers.

Rose Schneiderman’s words were felt by many at memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House for the 146 people killed by greed;

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

The only place progress can be seen between the two incidents would be in the fact that the owner of Hamlet chicken processing plant was sentencet to twenty years in prison while the owners of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory got away with murder, unless you count compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim in a 1913 civil suit.

For the advancement of the American worker far too much blood has been shed and far too many of these martyrs are forgotten. People like the toy maker George Engel, a printer named Adolph Fischer, a carpenter named Louis Lingg and two newspapermen, Albert Parsons and August Spies.

These four men found no refuge in the first amendment when tried mostly for the crime of speaking. They were victimized by a capitalist media, an unconstitutional police investigation, and one of the most unfair trials in American history. It did not matter that a jury would be prejudice by the headlines because the bailiff picked the jury;

Headlines in Chicago papers cried out for vengeance against the mostly immigrant workers believed to have inspired the Haymarket riot.  Typical of the blood lust was an editorial in the Chicago Times that urged, “Let us whip these slavic wolves back to the European dens from which they issue, or in some way exterminate them.”

It did not matter that most of the defendants were not even in Haymarket Square on the day an unidentified anarchist threw a bomb into the police mob;

Responding to the public clamor for justice, police (without a warrant) searched the offices of the pro-labor German-language newspaper, the Arbeiter-Zeitung.  Schwab and Spies, in the office writing copy for the next issue, were arrested and taken to jail.  At the jail, according to Spies, officers “jumped upon us, tore us from one end to the other.”

It did not matter that most workers in the city were just trying to organize peacefully;

For the next several weeks, civil liberties took a vacation in Chicago as police–usually without warrants–ransacked the homes of known socialists and anarchists, often beating and threatening occupants in the process.

To the media of the day, it did not matter that they were innocent;

Chicago papers, such as the pro-business Chicago Tribune, reported “universal satisfaction with the verdict.”  The Chicago Times declared that the defendants had been “fairly prosecuted and ably defended under the processes of the law which they would have throttled, and twelve good and true men have doomed them all save one to death.”

The voice of the people did not matter either;

A last-ditch clemency effort garnered 100,000 signatures from American citizens. Writers including William Dean Howells, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde voiced criticism of the trial and urged mercy.  The head of Chicago bar, a former Illinois U. S. Senator and various Chicago civic leaders urged the governor to grant at least some of the condemned men clemency.  Hundreds of telegrams–on both sides of the issue–poured daily into the office of Governor Richard Oglesby in early November 1887.  The job of reviewing an 8,000-page trial record overwhelmed the governor.  After listening to final pleas on November 10, Governor Oglesby announced his decision: the sentences of Fielden and Schwab, who had requested commutation in writing, would be reduced to life in prison; the others, who had not made such a request, would die as scheduled.

On the morning of Friday, November 11, 1887, dozens of armed police officers surrounded the jail.  Shortly before 11:00, 250 reporters and other selected witnesses were ushered into a corridor in back of the courthouse.  At noon, the four (Lingg had committed suicide the day before by lighting dynamite held in his mouth) condemned men marched in white robes toward the raised gallows that had been constructed the previous night.  Engel, Fischer, Spies, and Parsons took their places in a line behind their respective nooses.  The crowd watched quietly as guards fastened straps around the prisoners’ ankles, nooses around necks, and shrouds over heads. The executioner lifted the axe that would cut the cord tripping all four trapdoors.

That May Fourth Haymarket Riot came four days after the first real Labor Day event in American history. MAYDAY, 1886: THE EIGHT-HOUR MOVEMENT. It was like most of the early history of the labor movement, a bitter disappointment but it helped raise social awareness and increased solidarity. The always optimistic George E. McNeill offered these words;

The year 1886 will be known as the year of the great uprising of labor. . . .Hope seemed to have entered the heart of the most oppressed. It was the very dawning of the day when the term ‘dignity of labor’ meant something. Laboring men who had heretofore considered themselves as scarcely more than serfs, without rights or privileges, fearing to organize, or failing to do so because of the hopelessness of their condition, seemed to be inspired with a new spirit. So great was the increased membership that even the largest of organized labor.

More progress through bloodshed came through the most notoriously inhumane industry in American history in the Lattimer Massacre ;

The Lattimer massacre was an incident in which a sheriff’s posse killed nineteen unarmed immigrant miners and wounded scores more. On 10 September 1897 at the Lattimer mine near Hazleton, Pennsylvania, men under the authority of the Luzerne County sheriff fired on a peaceful labor demonstration made up of mostly Polish, Slovak, and Lithuanian anthracite miners. This incident stands not only as the largest massacre of Central Europeans in the United States, but also as a turning point in the American labor movement.

In this incident where the press took notice and the nation learned the horror of this massacre another labor spokesperson left her almost unnoticed mark in labor history;

“Big Mary” Septak, a Slavic woman who operated a boarding house in Lattimer, rallied workers around the idea of opposing what she viewed as the tyranny of coal companies. Known to deliver fiery and compassionate speeches in various native tongues she stirred the consciousness of workers in an effort to inspire collective action and to promote the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) as the solution. The new union promised economic justice for mine workers and to end exploitation by the coal companies.

The sheriff and his band of murderers were acquitted but a new law was passed to prevent local law enforcement from committing mass murder.  In the future only the National Guard would be used to restore order in times of civil disorder. This didn’t seem to make much difference seventeen years later during the Ludlow Massacre

The Ludlow Massacre pertains to the violent deaths of 17 people during an attack by the Colorado National Guard on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado in the USA on April 20, 1914. These deaths occurred after a day-long fight between strikers and the Guard. Two women, twelve children, six miners and union officials and one National Guardsman were killed. In response, the miners armed themselves and attacked dozens of mines, destroying property and engaging in several skirmishes with the Colorado National Guard.

There is much more known about Mother Jones that Mary Septak. Born Mary Harris Jones, she was referred to by workers as “The Miners’ Angel.”

She became known as “the most dangerous woman in America”, a phrase coined by a West Virginia District Attorney named Reese Blizzard in 1902, when she was arrested for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. “There sits the most dangerous woman in America”, announced Blizzard. “She crooks her finger-twenty thousand contented men lay down.”

An injunction banning free assembly doesn’t sound very American but the Children’s Crusade organized by Mother Jones sure did.

In 1903 Jones organized children working in mills and mines in the “Children’s Crusade”, a march from Kensington, Pennsylvania to Oyster Bay, New York, the home of President Theodore Roosevelt with banners demanding “We want time to play!” and “We want to go to school!” Though the President refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda.

Joe Hill, another folk hero was born into this era or perhaps was unjustly put to death during the heyday of Mother Jones. He was a fellow member of the IWW or Wobblies. He was a man who simply moved about the nation and organized workers, making speeches and writing songs and poems about the working class He coined the phrase “pie in the sky”, which appeared in his song “The Preacher and the Slave.”

He was convicted for a Salt Lake City murder the he almost certainly had nothing to do with. Just prior to his execution, he had written to an IWW leader;

Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize!

After he faced the firing squad folk songs were written about his life and unjust conviction. His last will and testament was eventually set to music by Ethel Raim;

My will is easy to decide

For there is nothing to divide

My kin don’t need to fuss and moan

“Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.”

My body? – Oh. – If I could choose

I would to ashes it reduce

And let the merry breezes blow

My dust to where some flowers grow

Perhaps some fading flower then

Would come to life and bloom again

This is my Last and final Will

Good Luck to All of you

-Joe Hill

That “Don’t waste time” letter was written to another labor hero. A man considered to be so dangerous to the industrialist that the government went to great pains to lock him up and take him out of the labor movement. The attempted railroading of “Big Bill” Haywood failed in one of the strangest murder trials of all time because he had Clarence Darrow as a lawyer but the government later managed to convict him in an Espionage trial under the new Espionage Act of 1917. With no hope of appeal, being a socialist, Bill Haywood actually defected to Russia!

Even odder was the case of Eugene Debs, convicted beside Bill Haywood in that espionage case but managed to receive nearly one million votes in the 1920 presidential election while in prison. The espionage case merely amounted to speaking out against World War I. Both Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs saw something that is very familiar to the modern day progressive;

They did not see it as a “people’s war”. They saw both sides as capitalist oppressors of working men, whose blood was being shed to benefit the munitions makers and banks.

With nearly one million votes being cast for Eugene Debs, it would seem that that a few Americans were on to the birth of the military industrial complex as well.

All of the labor movement stories are not tragic. There was progress even though it moved at a glacial pace. The dawn of the twentieth century, as industrialization expanded and organized labor took hold was the beginnings of good era for the working class. It was both an era of John Pierpont Morgan and the dawn of social awareness.

The next generation of union organizers that came up through the ranks had stepping stones laid down by the previous worker advocates and the workers made modest gains. There were forward steps by labor leaders like John Mitchell and later John L. Lewis in the coal mining industry.

There was William B. Wilson who started out working in a coal mine at eleven years old and not only rose up to  international secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers of America, he became the very first Secretary of Labor between 1913 and 1921 under Woodrow Wilson.

And what does this nation have for a Secretary of Labor today? Someone who in an interview with Parade Magazine had this to say;

“American employees must be punctual, dress appropriately and have good personal hygiene,” says Chao. “They need anger-management and conflict-resolution skills, and they have to be able to accept direction. Too many young people bristle when a supervisor asks them to do something.”

During this progressive period for the worker there were also steps back too. The Pullman Strike where the U.S. government showed a willingness to crush the workers and send in the military to get the trains rolling again.

But people like Samuel Gompers who founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and came around to supporting the Democratic Party and the founder of the TWU WalterReuther who transformed the United Auto Workers into a powerful force within the Democratic Party. Even a Politician got involved in labor when Senator Huey Long proposed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)..  

The biggest step came when labor found its first hero that didn’t just speak to power but was actually elected president of the United States. The Great Depression was met by a President that was an advocate of the workers;

In the early 1930s, as the nation slid toward the depths of depression, the future of organized labor seemed bleak. In 1933, the number of labor union members was around 3 million, compared to 5 million a decade before. Most union members in 1933 belonged to skilled craft unions, most of which were affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

The union movement had failed in the previous 50 years to organize the much larger number of laborers in such mass production industries as steel, textiles, mining, and automobiles. These, rather than the skilled crafts, were to be the major growth industries of the first half of the 20th century.

Although the future of labor unions looked grim in 1933, their fortunes would soon change. The tremendous gains labor unions experienced in the 1930s resulted, in part, from the pro-union stance of the Roosevelt administration and from legislation enacted by Congress during the early New Deal. The National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) provided for collective bargaining. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) required businesses to bargain in good faith with any union supported by the majority of their employees. Meanwhile, the Congress of Industrial Organizations split from the AFL and became much more aggressive in organizing unskilled workers who had not been represented before. Strikes of various kinds became important organizing tools of the CIO.

The Golden Age of the American worker began when Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the 1936 Democratic National Convention with a speech that included these words;

An old English judge once said: “Necessitous men are not free men.” Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.

For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.

The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.

Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.

These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.

But that is all over now The royalists of the economic order have been back in power so long that Robert Reich said on This Week yesterday that the disparity between the workers and the rich have grown to proportions that are comparable “with the 1920’s, perhaps the 1890’s.”

In what seem to me to be the scariest part, The Republicans seem to be getting even better at taking away from the Middle Class. Throughout history the robber barons gouged the worst during economic downturns. We have lost all this ground through good times. Or maybe it’s just because FDR’s Middle Class has more to give.

On the bright side, it seems obvious that we have reached the low point in this cyclical eras of the privileged and the era of the willing assistance of the government may be coming to a close.

The workers will rise again with a Democrat majority caused by this painful era that probably began in 1982, when the modern figurehead of the Republican Party fired 20,000 striking air traffic controllers and was escaladed by George W. Bush’s declaration of war on the workers.

Anyway, those are some of the people I’ve been thinking about on Labor Day, America’s May Day. The great Americans that gave me the eight hour day, the weekend, the sick day, the unemployment check, the compensation case, the possibility of a dignified retirement and the peace of mind that I once enjoyed. May they make a big comeback soon.


    • Eddie C on September 5, 2011 at 02:38

    Many of the links are broken, there is a different Secretary of Labor now but Robert Reich is still talking about the disparity between the workers and the rich and it has only gotten worse.

    I was such an optimist back in 2007. The diary was filled with hope based on an upcoming Democratic President and a long awaited majority in both the House and the Senate. I truly believed it was going to be the worker’s turn.

    Now it is pretty obvious that little has changed in the tradition of robber barons doing their worst gouging during economic downturns. It happened all over again and I’m not much optimism department anymore.

    • Eddie C on September 5, 2011 at 15:31

    Or did someone change where the break was above and below the fold?

    Whoever did, thank you.

    I;ve taken the additional step of removing the first two paragraphs here.

    This Daily Kos diary was no hit in 2007. Long and far too dull for that community, the diary was aptly titled People to Remember on May Day American Style. It is still long and no changes have been made but remembering the people who gave so much so that American workers could have some dignity is still a good thing to do on Labor Day weekend.

    The diary was not about a nation that started crushing the American worker when Ronald Reagan was elected. It was about a nation with a long and dark history of worker exploitation. So, once again, below the fold is my dedication to a few of the many people who worked to change that history, the people who deserve to be remembered on this Labor Day and everyday.

    Seeing how it was irrelevant text that addressed a totally irrelevant place. And just in case it comes across someone who thinks there is more to life than arguing about Obama, I just posted the whole diary there again.  

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