By Greg Zeman
Every protection enjoyed by working people, from a minimum wage to child labor laws, was fought for by organized labor and was opposed tooth and nail by the companies that benefited from the exploitation of workers.
Had it not been for the pioneers of the labor movement in the U.S., we would still be serfs in a sham democracy with no power to organize in our own interest against the already organized interests of our employers.
And there are some people in this country that would love to see that happen, who are actually working to see that it does. The people representing corporate interests are doing what they always do when the economy goes south — maximizing their profits at the expense of the safety, dignity and humanity of workers while doing anything they can to undercut victories already won by unions.
Battle lines drawn
When times are hard, we can’t afford for our unions to get soft.
The Republican party — which, under the Bush administration, oversaw the largest expansion of government spending since the New Deal in the 1930s and the broadest, most aggressive assault on financial regulation since the Great Depression — is trying to turn back the clock.
They would eliminate vital labor rights won with the blood and sweat of U.S. workers who fought for the basic human protections that the “free market” did not provide them.
From their dogged opposition of the Employee Free Choice Act to the stripping of collective bargaining rights of public unions in Wisconsin, the GOP is waging a corporate-funded war of aggression against labor and, by proxy, working people.
Not labor’s first fight
On May 1, 1886, a coalition of United States trade unionists, anarchists and socialists of various stripes organized a national general strike to demand an eight-hour workday at a time when owners enslaved workers for nearly twice that each day.
When the U.S. government first surveyed the length of the average workweek in 1890, they found it was about 100 hours long, compared to the 40-hour week and two-day weekend won by organized labor.
In Chicago, 10,000 people participated in a peaceful strike, but tensions between the demonstrators and the police boiled over and officers shot and killed four people. The resulting rally on Haymarket Square also ended in bloodshed when a bomb exploded, setting off more police shootings.
As a result, four anarchists were convicted and executed in a show trial, although their convictions were overturned after their deaths. It was the outrage over these executions that lead to the Second International establishing May Day as an international holiday to commemorate labor martyrs, particularly the Haymarket anarchists.
May Day is also known as International Workers Day or Labor Day throughout most of the world, and even though its roots are in Chicago, is largely seen as a foreign phenomenon in the U.S. Part of the reason for this is that the U.S. government deliberately countered what they saw as the Soviet influence of May Day by declaring May 1 “Loyalty Day,” originally “Americanization Day.”
The fact that our country’s Labor Day falls in September and not the international date of May 1 may be more of a symbol than a cause of our isolation from other labor and social movements, but the value of organizing ourselves and allying with workers the world over cannot be overstated.
The power of labor
Wake up working people: The easy-credit circus has left town and is never coming back. Don’t look for another financial bubble to hitch your family’s needs to, invest in the only thing that’s ever paid off—your own labor.
Lots of people are feeling disillusioned with electoral politics. With both parties delivering so little on such lofty promises, it isn’t hard to see why. But there is no disputing the direct effect you can have on your own welfare if you combine the power of your labor and that of your fellow worker with the will to be paid and treated justly.