Many people don’t think about Labor Day. They see it as another day off from work. It’s a day when the retail corporations offer incentives to come out and consume. Yet, even those who have an inkling of what Labor Day is and what it’s about don’t realize that this day masks the real defiance and spirit of the workers’ movement.
The Knights of Labor were the driving force behind making the Labor Day of September officially recognized. They were aided in this effort by President Grover Cleveland who sought to commemorate this day instead of another more historic day in May 4th in which many in the international labor movement sought to recognize in the May Day of May 1st.
It was the events that occurred in May 1886 that eventually brought about the eight-hour work day. Starting on May 1st of that year there were thousands of rallies organized in support of eight-hour workdays. The one rally that forever ingrained May Day in our collective memories was the one which occurred on May 4th in Haymarket Square in Chicago.
If there is one thing that is true about labor versus capital, it is the reality that nothing is ever won by labor without a fight. Working people often face violence, repression and hostility when trying to organize and wring concessions from corporations and sometimes government. It is as true then, in the late nineteenth century, as it is now in the early twenty first century. If we want to take back Labor Day on whatever day we celebrate it–we must show people that this truth of the struggle is far from being over.
It was then with this ever present reality that striking and locked out McCormick Harvesting Machine Corporation plant workers in Chicago—which were attacked by Pinkerton thugs and then cut down by the police in gunfire on May 3rd—had had enough and organized a protest to take place at Haymarket Square.
The rally that occurred in Haymarket Square that day was meant to be peaceful. Unfortunately it did not end that way. Someone threw a pipe bomb at the police which resulted in anarchy as gunshots filled the air. Many police officers and bystanders were injured mostly by friendly fire. In the end seven police men and four workers were killed.
Afterward it is the trial that ensued and the injustice that the rally’s organizers faced is what gave the Haymarket Affair its notoriety. Eight people were charged and seven were given death sentences, including August Spies, a leader and labor activist.
It is my opinion that this trial was also used to try and discredit the workers and their cause. Thankfully this did not happen and we can thank organized labor for the eight-hour workday (and five-day workweek) today.
Yes, we enjoy benefits that the labor movement of the past worked to get us, but there are new issues and needs that we must address and fight for. We need to start working to organize sectors of the new economy like IT and the service-based jobs. This work has already begun and hopefully it will prove successful. We also need to look to the new green-collar jobs that will come into being. We also shouldn’t give up entirely on manufacturing. As the cost of oil rises we will probably see a return of some manufacturing jobs to America. We have to also look to organize plants that are opened in the US by foreign corporations. We have to focus on affordable college education and ensuring that the workforce is educated for any new sectors of the economy that may become a reality. Last but not least, universal healthcare and affordable housing are issues that deeply concern working America and must continue to be focused on until working families get what they need.
I think that another thing we must also do is to start thinking of a global labor movement. Corporations have successfully globalized, but labor is still at the very beginning of doing this. If manufacturing jobs are going to leave the developed countries that doesn’t mean that workers in other countries should be allowed to be taken advantage of. We can work to organize these workers as well. Every few months I read of tens of thousands of workers in developing countries going out on strike. We need to work on forming global labor unions. To take back Labor Day and make it truly a holiday to celebrate for not only America’s workers but for workers everywhere, there are many things we must do. Probably the one thing we can do as a society is also recognize that we can’t continue a race to the bottom. We can’t put the bottom line above people. Profit maximization and the lowest possible prices for the consumer isn’t everything. If we have to pay a little more as consumers and earn a little less as corporations then maybe it’s not a bad thing if it ensures more people have jobs and a secure life.
About the Author: Jason Gooljar is a progressive liberal blogger currently employed in the progressive movement and living in the DC metro area. A native New Yorker, Jason first got involved with political and civic issues in 1998 during his senior year in high school. At the time he was an intern and learned about the workings of local government in Westchester County, NY. Since then, he has worked as a paid staffer on two state senate campaigns and one gubernatorial campaign in NY. He was also a member of the first class to be trained in online organizing by the DC-based non-profit the New Organizing Institute in the winter of 2006. Jason holds an Associates degree in Multimedia Development and Management. His future goals include going back to school to study political science or a public policy-related area. While Jason always had an interest in politics, it was witnessing the 2005 TWU Local 100 transit strike in NYC which really galvanized him to focus on labor issues. In addition to labor issues Jason’s other areas of focus when he’s blogging is corporate abuse and consumerism. You can find him online at www.jasongooljar.com, where this post is cross-posted.