August 31st, 2012

Putting Laborers Back Into Labor Day


Throughout the years we at the WBI have covered Labor Day from the workers’ rights perspective. The holiday is not just for shopping or camping. It’s about honoring people who work. More specifically, as the historical accounts below make clear, it is about emancipating workers from horrific working conditions and doing so collectively, in an organized way. Yes, the union way.

Unions are demonized daily and growing extinct. The attacks are leveled without rebuttal by “journalists” or cowardly politicians who should represent everyone’s interests rather than corporate employers. Media reps are afraid of losing ad dollars. Politicians fear bucking the pro-corporate PACs with the funds to pour into their opponents’ campaign coffers. Unions can only muster 6% of all contributions to politicians. Corporatists control the system.

Income inequality grows in the U.S. The connection between declining unionization rates and inequality is not accidental. They are mutually determinative. That is, the richest among us want to make America a minimum wage nation, while unions ask nothing more than a living wage on which families can provide shelter, food, clothing and education for their children. Somehow, the most greedy have convinced the majority of us that those needs are excessive. That earning a $40,000 wage with benefits and a fixed pension is bankrupting America. Balderdash!!!

So, union-bashers take the weekend off, please. Let’s see how many union folks are featured in media coverage during the one holiday that belongs to them — Labor Day.

For 2012, we collected past postings, including a favorite WBI podcast.

Podcast: Labor Day Message for Working Folks

Download Podcast 9 (in .mp3 format)
Restoring dignity for the underclasses with help from Franklin Roosevelt, Mark Twain (Hal Holbrook), Andrew Cuomo, Harry Chapin.

Read the report cited in the podcast: No Rhyme or Reason: The ‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’ Bank Bonus Culture by Andrew Cuomo, then NY State Attorney General

Ignored History of American Workers


View the slide show of some historical moments in labor history not always included in the history books. How many today remember the abolition of the PATCO union? It’s been all downhill for American workers since then.


May Day as Workers’ Day erased from U.S. history

Think Maypole? Yes, but, there is so much more. May Day started in the U.S. in the late 1880′s to commemorate the struggle by workers to shorten 10-16 hour workdays to 8-hours. At its 1884 national convention in Chicago, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the future AFL), proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” The federation called for workers to negotiate with their employers for an eight-hour workday and, if that failed, to call a general strike on May 1 in support of the demand. The terrible aftermath of that first May Day 1886 in Chicago, the Haymarket massacre, would convince politicians and businesses to move labor events to Labor Day in September so the memory of what happened in 1886 would be erased from public memory.

According to accounts from Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and labor historian Dick Meister, here’s what happened.

On May 1, 1886, the first May Day celebration in history. some workers negotiated, some marched, more than 300,000 struck affecting 13,000 businesses. And all won strong support, in dozens of cities – Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, Newark, Brooklyn, St. Paul and others.

Not all newspapers were as supportive, however. The strikes and demonstrations, one paper complained, amounted to “communism, lurid and rampant.” The eight-hour day, another said, would encourage “loafing and gambling, rioting, debauchery, and drunkenness.”

Says the IWW, workers in the 19th century had seen first-hand that Capitalism benefited only their bosses, trading workers’ lives for profit. Thousands of men, women and children were dying needlessly every year in the workplace, with life expectancy as low as their early twenties in some industries, and little hope but death of rising out of their destitution. Socialism offered another option. A variety of socialist organizations sprung up throughout the later half of the 19th century, ranging from political parties to choir groups. In fact, many socialists were elected into governmental office by their constituency. Literally thousands of working people embraced the ideals of anarchism, which sought to put an end to all hierarchical structures (including government), emphasized worker controlled industry, and valued direct action over the bureaucratic political process. It is inaccurate to say that labor unions were “taken over” by anarchists and socialists, but rather anarchists and socialist made up the labor unions.

In Chicago on May 1 1886, the epicenter for the 8-hour day agitators, 40,000 went out on strike with the anarchists in the forefront with their speeches and revolutionary ideology of direct action, and anarchism became respected and embraced by the working people and despised by the capitalists. Yet peace prevailed.

Two days later, May 3, 1886, violence broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works between police and strikers. For six months, armed Pinkerton agents and the police harassed and beat locked-out steelworkers as they picketed. During a speech near the McCormick plant, some two hundred demonstrators joined the steelworkers on the picket line. Beatings with police clubs escalated into rock throwing by the strikers which the police responded to with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed and an unknown number were wounded.

Full of rage, a public meeting was called by some of the anarchists for the following day in Haymarket Square to discuss the police brutality. Due to bad weather and short notice, only about 3000 of the tens of thousands of people showed up from the day before. This affair included families with children and the mayor of Chicago himself. Later, the mayor would testify that the crowd remained calm and orderly and that speaker August Spies made “no suggestion… for immediate use of force or violence toward any person…”

As the speech wound down, two detectives rushed to the main body of police, reporting that a speaker was using inflammatory language, inciting the police to march on the speakers’ wagon. As the police began to disperse the already thinning crowd, a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. No one knows who threw the bomb, but speculations varied from blaming any one of the anarchists, to an agent provocateur working for the police.

Enraged, the police fired into the crowd. The exact number of civilians killed or wounded was never determined, but an estimated seven or eight civilians died, and up to forty were wounded. One officer died immediately and another seven died in the following weeks. Later evidence indicated that only one of the police deaths could be attributed to the bomb and that all the other police fatalities had or could have had been due to their own indiscriminate gun fire.

Aside from the bomb thrower, who was never identified, it was the police, not the anarchists, who perpetrated the violence. The bomb thrower was never discovered, but eight labor, socialist and anarchist leaders – branded as violent, dangerous radicals by press and police alike – were arrested on the clearly trumped up charge that they had conspired to commit murder. Four of them were hanged, one committed suicide while in jail, and three were pardoned six years later by Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld, who publicly lambasted the judge on a travesty of justice.

The words on the Haymarket Monument: THE DAY WILL COME WHEN OUR SILENCE WILL BE MORE POWERFUL THAN THE VOICES YOU ARE THROTTLING TODAY.

Immediately after the Haymarket Massacre, big business and government conducted what some say was the very first “Red Scare” in this country. Spun by mainstream media, anarchism became synonymous with bomb throwing and socialism became un-American. The common image of an anarchist became a bearded, eastern European immigrant with a bomb in one hand and a dagger in the other.

Employers responded to the so-called Haymarket Riot by mounting a counter-offensive that seriously eroded the eight-hour day movement’s gains. But the movement was an extremely effective organizing tool for the country’s unions, and in 1890 President Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor was able to call for “an International Labor Day” in favor of the eight-hour workday. Similar proclamations were made by socialist and union leaders in other nations where, to this day, May Day is celebrated as Labor Day.

US President Grover Cleveland feared that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 could become an opportunity to commemorate Haymarket. He moved in 1887 to support Labor Day in September, as the Knights of Labor (an early worker organization that rejected socialism) had wanted.

Workers in the United States and 13 other countries demonstrated on that May Day of 1890 – including 30,000 of them in Chicago. The New York World hailed it as “Labor’s Emancipation Day.” It was. For it marked the start of an irreversible drive that finally established the eight-hour day as the standard for millions of working people.

From the IWW,

When we remember that people were shot so we could have the 8-hour day; if we acknowledge that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so we could have Saturday as part of the weekend; when we recall 8-year old victims of industrial accidents who marched in the streets protesting working conditions and child labor only to be beat down by the police and company thugs, we understand that our current condition cannot be taken for granted – people fought for the rights and dignities we enjoy today, and there is still a lot more to fight for. The sacrifices of so many people can not be forgotten or we’ll end up fighting for those same gains all over again. This is why we celebrate May Day.

And thanks to the 2010 U.S. election, anti-labor forces are more emboldened than ever. The hard-won gains can be stripped away with the simple stroke of a pen in the hands of a malicious governor (Walker in Wisconsin, Kasich in Ohio, Christie in New Jersey, Snyder of Michigan, etc.)

The fight against abusive misconduct in the workplace is a small part of the fight to retain and restore dignity for all workers.

Occupy has called for a “general strike,” harkening back to Chicago 1880′s.

Update: On April 30, the Chicago Tribune ran a good historical review of the city’s role in the May Day tradition.


The Demands of Hard Labor Done by Older Workers

Just because you use the internet, it is easy to assume that everyone enjoys light duty (except for the risk repetitive strain injury) to earn a paycheck. Turns out that 8.5 million workers age 58 and older have physically demanding jobs (lifting & moving objects, standing for long periods, kneeling, crouching) or difficult physical working conditions (exposure to abnormal temperatures, contaminants, uncomfortable noise, hazardous equipment). The NY Times tells the story of Findlay Ohio worker Jack Hartley who slings heavy rubber in a tire plant. He figures he won’t last until retirement age of 65 or 66, let alone a protracted delay until age 70 that Social Security opponents suggest. The Center for Economic and Policy Research released their report Hard Work? Patterns in Physically Demanding Labor Among Older Workers (August 2010).

The summary of research findings from the CEPR report by Hye Jin Rho:

• 37 percent of male workers age 58 and older had jobs that involved any general physical demand, compared to 32.2 percent of female workers age 58 and older.
• Out of 1.4 million Latino workers age 58 and older, about 54 percent had physically demanding jobs. Latino men had the largest share (62.4 percent) of older workers in physically demanding jobs.
• Among those age 58 and older, difficult jobs were held by 62.4 percent of Latino workers, 53.2 percent of black workers, 50.5 percent of Asian Pacific American workers, and 42.6 percent of white workers.
• Older workers with less than a high school diploma had the highest share of workers (77.2 percent) in difficult jobs. Those with an advanced degree had the lowest share of workers (22 percent) in difficult jobs.
• Immigrant workers age 58 and older were more likely (47.5 percent) than non-immigrant workers (33 percent) to have physically demanding jobs. Nearly 56 percent had difficult jobs.
• 56.4 percent of older workers in the bottom wage quintile had physically demanding jobs
compared to only about 17 percent of those in the top quintile.
• 63.3 percent of older workers in the bottom wage quintile had difficult jobs compared to only about 25 percent of those in the top quintile.

Get the picture? Older Latino workers with the least amount of education earn the lowest pay doing the heaviest lifting in the workforce.

Those wimpy politicians and policy wonks who advocate postponing retirement age because they see healthy elderly folks greeting them at WalMart should have to work a demanding job.

You can download the complete report here.

The CEPR report took me back to my bookshelf to rediscover the wonderful, clear, no platitudes book by Reg Theriault about the industrial blue collar worker’s fate, to work for a lifetime in hard labor at the command of the owner.

You can purchase the book at Amazon.


Dick Meister: Meaning of May Day

May Day. A day to herald the coming of Spring with song and dance, a day for children with flowers in their hair to skip around beribboned maypoles, a time to crown May Day queens.

But it also is a day for demonstrations heralding the causes of working people and their unions such as are being held on Sunday that were crucial in winning important rights for working people.

The first May Day demonstrations, in 1886, won the most important of the rights ever won by working people ­ the right demanded above all others by the labor activists of a century ago:

“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!”

Winning the eight-hour workday took years of hard struggle, beginning in the mid-1800s. By 1867, the federal government, six states and several cities had passed laws limiting their employees’ hours to eight per day. The laws were not effectively enforced and in some cases were overturned by courts, but they set an important precedent that finally led to a powerful popular movement.

The movement was launched in 1886 by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, then one of the country’s major labor organizations. The federation called for workers to negotiate with their employers for an eight-hour workday and, if that failed, to strike on May 1 in support of the demand.

Some negotiated, some marched and otherwise demonstrated. More than 300,000 struck. And all won strong support, in dozens of cities ­ Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, Newark, Brooklyn, St. Paul and others.

More than 30,000 workers had won the eight-hour day by April. On May Day, another 350,000 workers walked off their jobs at nearly 12,000 establishments, more than 185,000 of them eventually winning their demand. Most of the others won at least some reduction in working hours that had ranged up to 16 a day.

Additionally, many employers cut Saturday operations to a half-day, and the practice of working on Sundays, also relatively common, was all but abandoned by major industries.

“Hurray for Shorter Time,” declared a headline in the New York Sun over a story describing a torchlight procession of 25,000 workers that highlighted the eight-hour-day activities in New York. Never before had the city experienced so large a demonstration.

Not all newspapers were as supportive, however. The strikes and demonstrations, one paper complained, amounted to “communism, lurid and rampant.” The eight-hour day, another said, would encourage “loafing and gambling, rioting, debauchery, and drunkenness.”

The greatest opposition came in response to the demonstrations led by anarchist and socialist groups in Chicago, the heart of the eight-hour day movement. Four demonstrators were killed and more than 200 wounded by police who waded into their ranks, but what the demonstrators’ opponents seized on were the events two days later at a protest rally in Haymarket Square. A bomb was thrown into the ranks of the police who had surrounded the square, killing seven and wounding 59.

The bomb thrower was never discovered, but eight labor, socialist and anarchist leaders ­ branded as violent, dangerous radicals by press and police alike ­were arrested on the clearly trumped up charge that they had conspired to commit murder. Four of them were hanged, one committed suicide while in jail, and three were pardoned six years later by Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld.

Employers responded to the so-called Haymarket Riot by mounting a counter-offensive that seriously eroded the eight-hour day movement’s gains. But the movement was an extremely effective organizing tool for the country’s unions, and in 1890 President Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor was able to call for “an International Labor Day” in favor of the eight-hour workday. Similar proclamations were made by socialist and union leaders in other nations where, to this day, May Day is celebrated as Labor Day.

Workers in the United States and 13 other countries demonstrated on that May Day of 1890 ­ including 30,000 of them in Chicago. The New York World hailed it as “Labor’s Emancipation Day.” It was. For it marked the start of an irreversible drive that finally established the eight-hour day as the standard for millions of working people.

###

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, dickmeister.com

Reprinted with permission of the author.

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This entry was posted on Friday, August 31st, 2012 at 1:37 pm and is filed under Commentary by G. Namie, Fairness & Social Justice Denied, Podcasts, The New America, Unions, WBI Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  1. kachina2 says:

    I will be spending the labour day weekend with family and friends…a luxury denied me when I worked in a 24/7 workplace before I quit citing work-life balance and health and safety concerns. My peers who remained at the workplace and did not stand up to support me will be working 8 to12 hour shifts this weekend. 

    The supervisors, managers, executives, and union representatives in that workplace will be leaving work shortly to enjoy a three day weekend, as will the HR and OSH professionals and politicians who oversee the operation of that public and essential service. They will return refreshed on Tuesday to deal with the workplace concerns of the ambulance attendants who survived uninjured after falling asleep at the wheel after 20 hours on duty this week, the police officers who will have dealt with the predictable long-weekend insanity of our city streets, the hospital emergency workers who will have coped with the influx of injuries that occur (also predictably) with greater frequency on weekends…especially long ones. And all those workers will receive is an extra 4 to six hours pay, depending on the length of their shift. What a way to honour their contribution to our lives and communities. I will be wearing red on Monday in support of the anti-bullying movement. It’s a small gesture, and I’ll do it with great sincerity sporting a WBI anti-bullying button.

    Have a wonderful weekend, all.

  2. kachina2 says:

    Seems there was an attempt to give voice to labour concerns on Labour Day in Canada…with interesting results.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/09/03/psac-banner-harper-grounded.html?cmp=rss

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