One hundred and thirty-one years ago in Chicago, May Day (also known as International Labor Day) was born in fire, built in blood, and mortared in the miscarriage of justice. The event was supposed to be a peaceful protest known after the fact as the Haymarket affair. The laborers were protesting for an eight-hour work day and in reaction to police killing of several workers. However, as police were attempting to disburse the crowd a bomb exploded leading to gunfire. All in there were 11 dead, including police officers and protesters, and hundreds wounded or arrested.
What came next would solidify the tone for the plight of labor in this country. Anarchists were blamed for the explosion, with seven men sentenced to death in a trial that would later be denounced by the Governor (but only after most of the men had been executed). In jury selection, any possible juror who admitted sympathy to labor, socialists, or anarchists were dismissed as prejudiced while the selected 12 had all admitted to being prejudiced specifically against the accused—though promised to acquit if the evidence warranted it.
Meanwhile, the laborers and unions suspected that the explosion was a clandestine and deadly ruse dispatched and delivered by the Pinkertons. Given the Pinkerton’s well-established practice of infiltrating labor groups and inciting violence from within, this wasn’t a stretch however the bombs and bomb making materials found in the possession of some suspects didn’t help matters.
Ultimately, we can’t be sure what happened. The trial was dismissed too late, but mishandled all the same; the Chicago Police at the time were accused of deep corruption and the truth is obfuscated from history. The battle between unions, corporate capitalism, and corruption would continue and has continued to the present day. Today, we stand on the threshold of national “Right to Work” laws, with a Supreme Court who by all rights will strike down collective bargaining, a purchased Republican Congress with a bill on the floor, and with a President who built his billions on busting labor agreements.
For many unionized workers, the propaganda machine has turned them against the idea of unions by twisting the facts and denying the nature of capitalism. The nature of unregulated capitalism is to increase profit and decrease production costs by any means necessary. Conservative news outlets and political representatives would have the masses of laborers and working people in this country believe that without the constant threat of union strike, class action lawsuit, lobbying, and collective bargaining that their employer would maintain the eight-hour work day, health insurance and retirement benefits, vacation time, or even weekends. Those things either increase the cost of production or decrease profit. Largess is foreign and unnatural to pure capitalism.
For those who argue that in the late 19th century there weren’t laws in place to ensure those rights, I assure you that without strong and resourceful unions there won’t be any in the future either. Those laws did not pass two Houses of Congress and make their way to the Oval Office inbox on a warm Spring breeze. It came from attrition and pressure from organized labor—a democratic, First Amendment fueled phenomenon of civically active citizens reigning in the greed inherent in capitalism. Those gains for workers provided for the closest realization of the American dream we’ve ever seen; their rollback will be the actualization of the American nightmare.
I’m no Pollyanna, unions have their own dirty dealings and self-serving transgressions to atone for, but I won’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Unions have done more good for the conditions of employees and workers than any corporation would have enacted through sudden moral compunction in ten times as long.
In the coming months and days, the discombobulated fauxservative Republican party may find a coalition within its fractured ranks and manage to pass laws that undercut the working conditions that contributed to the greatness of America in their Orwellian quest to “Make America Great Again”. Who asks them: “What made America great in the first place”? Not Right to Work laws. Wages and benefits in states with Right to Work laws are lower than those that are union. These laws won’t help the masses, only the asses in soft seats with corner offices.
Just as the Pinkertons infiltrated the labor movement in the late 19th century, the damage is being done from the inside and paid for by the corporate kings slinging cash. However, rather than a private detective agency tossing TNT, we’ve got career politicians slicked with cash and graft tossing legislative bombs at the foundations of equity. It may be too late. They’re building airplanes in the air and the explosions will have us calling “May Day” to the tower sooner than later if people don’t see these thugs in suits for what they’re worth.
We need to keep out in the streets and show up in droves at the polls. Ask your representatives, “Who are you making America great for, again?”