The violent history of Labor Day

Labor Day exemplifies the conceit of progress.  The holiday apparently originated in Toronto the spring of 1872 , when workers organized a parade to support the union strike for a 54-hour work week — since working only 9 hours a day, 6 days a week was worth risking their livelihood for.  The cause was popular, amassing 10,000 supporters.  Their employers fought back, hiring strikebreakers from the country to keep the machinery running and police to make arrests.

What crime had the strikers committed?  Agreeing to advocate for fewer hours or more pay — a violation of the Combination Act, outlawing such advocacy as a “restraint of trade.”  Freedom of association and expression had no place in a “free” market, as that would impede the control exercised by employers over workers.

Yet workers and their families felt differently.  Popular support soon led to legal reform and annual spring celebrations of the strike.  An American labor activist who went on to co-found the American Federation of Labor (America’s oldest union) took part in one such celebration in 1882; he organized a similar annual event in New York City on September 5, 1882 to celebrate the causes of American workers.  Twelve years later, President Grover Cleveland would declare this early September celebration a national holiday.

* * *

But such a happy ending belies the nature of progress.  President Cleveland was no friend to the freedom of workers.  Consider what happened in the twelve years leading up to the creation of Labor Day.

In 1884, the precursor to the American Federation of Labor resolved that a day of work be eight hours by May 1, 1886 (which would be a Saturday, a working day).  Support mounted, especially in Chicago, where on the anticipated day 80,000 people stopped working and marched for an eight-hour day.  The movement spread across the country over the next few days, and 350,000 workers went on strike nationwide.

In Chicago, demonstrators clashed with police, and four strikers were killed.  The workers rallied the next day in Haymarket Square, the police ordered them to disperse, and a bomb was thrown from the crowd.

The explosion killed seven officers — and popular support for the strike.  Labor leaders were rounded up, prosecuted, and four of them were hanged.

A few years later, the AFL decided to try again, setting May 1, 1890 as the date for an eight-hour work day to prevail.  The socialist organization Second International signed on, declaring May Day to be International Workers Day:  a day on which workers did not go to work, but rather remembered the Haymarket Affair and demonstrated for an eight-hour day.

The tradition caught on.  Yet by May of 1894, the demonstrators were not jut workers but those without work.  The country was suffering an economic depression caused by banks’ overspeculation in the heavily government-subsidized railroad industry.  In Cleveland, Ohio, police and protestors clashed violently.  President Grover Cleveland no doubt had these May Day “riots” in mind a couple weeks later, when the Pullman Strike unfolded.

Since the inflated railroad industry was losing steam, railcar tycoon George Pullman cut his employees’ wages and did not lower rents in the company town where employees were required to live.  Eugene Debs, future socialist candidate for president, organized a boycott of all railroads running Pullman cars, a strike by 250,000 workers.  President Cleveland, rather than pressuring Pullman to be humane, called in the U.S. military and marshals to put a violent end to the workers’ exercise in freedom of choice and expression.

And what law did the federal troops enforce?  The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, making illegal any contract, combination, or conspiracy in restraint of trade or commerce — a law intended to prevent business owners from concentrating too much power, but applied to prevent workers from exercising any power.  The strike was broken, 30 strikers were killed, and Debs was sentenced to prison.

A few days after the strike, in a ploy to appease unions and undermine the popular, worker-created holiday of May Day, Grover Cleveland pushed legislation through Congress that created the national holiday of Labor Day.  Most American workers continued laboring twelve to fourteen hours a day for decades to come, albeit not on the first Monday in September.

* * *

On this Labor Day, is there progress to celebrate?  We can measure progress in numerical terms such as hours worked or wages paid, but these superficial measures tell us little about the context in which to understand a life of work in America.

To be clear, the eight-hour day was worth fighting for, as were the nine and ten hour work days before that.  And we should fight for a six-hour day now.  Considering the numerical progress made in a span of a few decades from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, we are overdue in the early 2000s.

But more importantly, what is the quality of the hours worked and the hours not at work?  How much freedom and power do we enjoy as workers and as individuals outside of work?  How healthy, how fulfilled, how actualized are we workers?  Do we kill ourselves slowly, sitting in a chair, breathing recirculated air, performing tasks that mean little to us, feeling alternately bored to the point of stupefaction or stressed to the point of agony?  Do we come home enervated and watch TV , or scramble to perform family duties without a moment to be enervated?  Are our paltry weekends consumed by chores and errands, by mindless release and existential dread?

Americans still typically work over forty-hour weeks, and the power dynamics have not changed much.  Businesses commanding huge sums of wealth still buy political power to further entrench their dominance over workers and consumers.  They still oppose popular, pro-worker measures such as a living wage and student debt reform in the name of a “free” market.  Consider that workers in American work 53 more days a year than in Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany, where free higher education, collective bargaining, economic regulation, and tax-and-spend programs benefitting small businesses give people more power relative to holders of concentrated wealth.

In the American context of drastically disparate power dynamics, the occasional holiday is not a reprieve but a self-congratulatory distraction from the system of control that we remain subject to.  The true measure of progress is this:  how much power do we have to determine how we use our bodies, our brains, our precious hours of the day?  This is a question not just of incremental gains in the number of hours off or the rate of pay, but in our ability to critique, create, and cooperate for a life and world of our own making.