LABOR DAY —A Historical Perspective – September 2009

—A Historical Perspective

By Jim Cook


GoldLaborDay1On Monday, September 7, Americans in the US and abroad will celebrate Labor Day, a holiday with a deeply ironic history. These days, Labor Day typically involves barbecues or trips to the beach with little awareness of the long, bitter struggle to win dignity and a decent standard of living for working people.

The now-taken-for-granted 8-hour day was only won in the US after a bloody 100-year struggle. 19th Century socialists began calling for an 8-hour day as early as 1817 in England. Workers in New Zealand and Australia had won it by the 1850s. In the US, many employers and political conservatives fiercely resisted, claiming that it would result in the death of the free enterprise system. They have made similar claims against every social advance since, including the abolition of slavery, the minimum wage, laws against child labor, equal pay for women, civil rights, and currently, reform of health care.

By the 1880s, the Industrial Revolution was gaining steam. Millions of workers found themselves trapped in dirty, dangerous, and extremely low-paying jobs for 10-16 hours, 6 days a week. Consequently, labor unions were on the rise as well as strong socialist and anarchist movements which championed the causes of working people.

On May 4, 1886, anarchists and labor leaders in Chicago held a rally at Haymarket Square to explain the concept of the 8-hour day. The rally leaders called for a peaceful assembly and urged against any violence. Suddenly, the police marched against the assembled workers. Someone threw a bomb at the police, killing one and wounding several. There is some evidence that the bomb was a provocation by Pinkerton agents, heavily- armed thugs used by employers to infiltrate unions and break strikes. The police opened fire, shooting a large number of their own men in the confusion, but also killing or wounding many unarmed civilians.

Hysteria following the violence provided opportunities for political authorities, employers and major newspapers to denounce rally leaders and the 8-hour day. The leaders were arrested, convicted, and six were executed. The international labor movement, which had held world-wide protests against the trial, considered them martyrs. Later, Illinois Governor Altgeld pardoned the remaining imprisoned leaders and those executed and called all of the convictions unjust.

To honor the Haymarket martyrs, American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers asked the Socialists’ 2nd International Convention, meeting then in Paris, to set May 1, 1890 as the date for a world-wide general strike in support of the 8-hour day. May 1 has since been celebrated as Labor Day by nearly every country in the world. Mexico wrote the 8-hour day into its 1917 Constitution, and set May 1 as Mexico’s Labor Day. The American martyrs of Haymarket are specifically commemorated in Mexico and throughout the world in these celebrations.

So how did the US Labor Day end up on the first Monday in September? If you guessed the hand of politics, you’re right. In 1894, workers continued to demand an 8-hour day and other reforms. Conservative Democratic President Grover Cleveland wanted to break a strike in Chicago by Pullman Railway workers, which had begun in May. He feared infuriating America’s labor movement if he intervened, and wanted to make some gesture which might save the Democrats from working people’s wrath in the fall elections. Declaring a national Labor Day holiday might be just the ticket. However, May 1st was already celebrated in many countries by unionists, socialists, and anarchists.

A good conservative, Cleveland also didn’t want to alienate business interests. He settled on a September date because some unions in New York City had started holding an informal holiday in that month. Cleveland persuaded Congress, in July 1894, to create an American Labor Day on the first Monday in September. Shortly after Congress passed the holiday and Cleveland signed it, he sent federal troops to break the Pullman strike in Chicago.

Thus Grover Cleveland helped create a long tradition among conservative Democrats: avoid taking any action which might really help working people and instead offer cheap political gestures. As we reach Labor Day of September 2009 we may be viewing the reaffirmation of this tradition as conservative Democrats and their Republican allies once again attempt to gut real health care reform in favor of band aid solutions that will not overly offend their business constituencies.  Will they succeed? The American labor movement is united in demanding real reform. Stay tuned.

(Ed. Note: The author retired to Ajijic after working for 20 years as a union organizer in the Service Employees International Union, and for another ten before that as a community organizer in California, fighting a variety of corporate abuses.)

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