Thirty years ago more than 25 percent of all US employees were in unions. Today membership is less than 13 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the 1950s, US unions won almost three-quarters of all representation drives. By the start of the 21st century, they were winning less than half.
Suburban growth and "deindustrialization" have eroded organized labor’s traditional base. Automation and globalization have meanwhile displaced millions while corporations develop new schemes to restrict the rights of those who still have jobs. Along with the expansion of non-union industries, intensified international competition, and increased capital mobility, such changes have undermined the image of unions as the central vehicle to press for improved living standards, increase leisure time, and counter exploitation.
This fall from grace is actually a case of collective amnesia, brought on by cultural stereotyping, along with the emphasis of consumerism and individual achievement over participation and cooperation. Unions are widely portrayed today as just another special interest group, one routinely defamed in popular media as corrupt, selfish, or both. Yet the true, largely ignored history of the labor movement tells a very different story: a long and dedicated effort, despite often ruthless opposition, to shorten working hours, obtain a living wage, abolish child labor, eliminate unemployment, and win reforms like Social Security, equal rights, and medical care for all.
The first labor societies in the US, which were persecuted as illegal conspiracies, fought for minimum daily wages and a ten-hour day. How dare they, screeched the powers-that-were. Still, labor’s early proposals, things like free public schools and elimination of imprisonment for debt, became law before the Civil War. As the industrial revolution took hold, however, management fought back. Spies and provocateurs were hired, detective agencies were used to break up strikes, workers were forced to sign oaths swearing they wouldn’t join a union, and blacklists were created to keep potential organizers out of workplaces.
Railroad magnate Jay Gould expressed the cynicism of that time: "I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half."
Toward the end of the 19th century, the conflict between business and labor came to a head over the campaign for an eight-hour day. As one of the movement’s martyrs, Albert Parsons, told a congressional committee investigating the "labor question" in 1879, "We want to reduce the worst disability of poverty by reducing the hours of labor; by the distributing of work that is to be done more equally among the workingmen, and consequently reducing competition for the opportunity to work."
Showdown in Chicago
Today, Chicago is one of the most “watched” cities in the world, its streets, trains and buses under constant surveillance by thousands of cameras. Things have certainly changed since 1886, when it was the most radical city in the US. That era of rapid industrialization, combined with mass immigration, created a tense environment in which the demands of business owners and the needs of workers were bound to clash.
The working class in this emerging commercial and industrial center was diverse and, in many ways, divided. Skill, occupation, language and cultural differences created considerable barriers to unity, despite the inadequate working and living conditions most workers shared. The labor movement was nevertheless expanding its influence in campaigns to reduce work hours, the formation of workers’ parties, and the growth of trade unions.
Much of the city’s economic development was based on incredible population growth. Irish, Scandinavian, Czech, English and German immigrants dominated the blue-collar work force. In particular, first and second generation Germans comprised 33 percent of the city total population. They had their own newspapers, including the Arbeiter-Zeitung, Chicago’s largest radical daily paper, and their leaders were among the most articulate spokespersons for change.
The bourgeois press called these discontented men and women “communists” and “socialists,” largely ignorant of what the words actually meant. By the 1880s, the term “anarchist” had been added, an attempt to brand labor activists as enemies of all law. But many workers accepted the label, sometimes even embracing it as a badge of honor. For them, anarchism meant liberty, equality and fraternity. They envisioned a free society based on the cooperative organization of production and had come to the realization that peaceful change faced violent resistance.
There was vivid evidence to support this view. Strikes and peaceful demonstrations were routinely disrupted by heavily-armed police who beat and sometimes killed unarmed people. Newspapers called for brutal repression. Businessmen created and used private armies to break up labor actions.
Confronted with force, some leaders advised workers to arm themselves, and even to consider dynamite as a means of self-defense. “One man armed with a dynamite bomb is equal to one regiment of militia, when it is used at the right time and place,” trumpeted The Alarm, a radical newspaper edited by Parsons.
One of the few native-born Americans who led Chicago’s workers, Parsons was a charismatic and effective speaker who talked often of a coming social revolution and the need to be prepared for it. Though skeptical about the prospects for peaceful reform, he also helped to lead the campaign for an eight-hour workday, labor’s central demand at the time.
On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers laid down their tools across North America, united in their eight-hour call. In Chicago, 40,000 went out on strike. Parsons and his wife Lucy led 80,000 workers up Michigan Avenue, while on rooftops police and civilians crouched behind rifles, ready to fire on command.
Violence was averted in Chicago on this, the first May Day. But tragedy was only a few days away.
The Haymarket Bombing
On the afternoon of May 3, August Spies, editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, went to the city’s South Side. He’d been invited there to address striking workers of the Lumber Shovers’ Union. It was Monday but the empty streets and silent factories made it look like a Sunday.
Nearby, other strikers were standing angrily in front of the plant gates at the McCormick Reaper Works. They had been out of work for three months. Confrontations with police and McCormick’s hired guards were growing more violent each day.
Like Parsons, Spies was an effective speaker for radical action. Born in Landeck, Germany, he emigrated to the US in 1872, eventually starting a small furniture company with relatives. His main occupations, however, were editing the newspaper and organizing the working class. Fluent in both English and German, the 31-year-old combined insightful criticism with biting sarcasm. Along with Parsons, he was also a leader of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA), a growing, largely German, federation of labor groups.
That day he spoke about the eight-hour movement. But before finishing he was interrupted by renewed violence at the McCormick plant. Picketers had begun to heckle strikebreakers. Police wagons rolled in, and officers entered the fray swinging their clubs. Showered with stones, they drew their revolvers and began to fire. Two workers were killed and many more were injured.
Spies rushed back to his office and composed a fiery leaflet in German and English. “If you are men,” he wrote, “you will rise in your might, Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms, we call you, to arms!”
An overzealous typesetter, upon reading the text, added an even more incendiary headline. “REVENGE,” it screamed. Over 2,000 copies of what became known as the “Revenge Circular” were distributed throughout the city that night. By the next morning a mass meeting had been planned to protest the murders. The organizers, among them Adolph Fischer and George Engel, two German members of the ultra-radical “autonomist” faction, expected to draw 20,000 people that night to Haymarket Square.
By 8 p.m. on May 4, however, only 3,000 people had shown up. Spies was the only speaker in sight. Reluctantly, he addressed the crowd and urged restraint. Meanwhile, he sent a friend to find Parsons at a meeting nearby. Chicago’s Mayor Harrison, who was in the audience, considered the proceedings calm and orderly.
Parsons eventually arrived and spoke for an hour, repeating Spies’ words of caution. “This is not a conflict between individuals,” he noted, “but for a change of system, and socialism is designed to remove the causes which produce the pauper and the millionaire, but does not aim at the life of the individual.”
Next to mount the speaker’s wagon was Samuel Fielden, an English-born stone hauler well-known for his passionate yet earthy style. As Fielden spoke, the night turned windy and a dark raincloud rolled in. The audience dwindled to about 300 men, women and children. A few minutes more and it would have been over.
But Police Inspector John Bonfield, waiting with almost 200 officers at a police station a block away, had a different plan. He was always eager for an excuse to break up a demonstration. Informed that Fielden was making angry remarks, he saw his opportunity and ordered his men to march into the crowd. Confronted with armed force, the protesters were ordered to “immediately and peaceably disperse.”
“We are peaceable,” Fielden protested. Still, he agreed to end the gathering. But as he stepped down from the wagon a bomb was tossed into the midst of the police. Its explosion shook the street. Police fired wildly as the crowd scattered. Before the shooting stopped, dozens were injured or dead, among them eight policemen who died of bomb or gunshot wounds. Most of the officers had been killed by their own comrades.
The identity of the bomb thrower was never confirmed, but the establishment and a hysterical press clamored for retribution. Life in Chicago, as well as the nation’s labor movement and the image of anarchists, were all about to undergo a dramatic and long-lasting change. The stereotype of the anarchist as a wild-eyed, foreign-born, bomb-throwing maniac remains embedded in popular consciousness to this day.
A reign of terror followed the bombing. Offices, meeting halls and private homes were invaded. The Arbeiter-Zeitung and The Alarm were shut down, while the business community’s newspapers screamed in headlines about “Bloody Brutes,” “Red Ruffians,” and “Dynamarchists.” Like the months after 9/11, the mood of panic ran deep.
Over the next weeks dozens of people were arrested, interrogated, and sometimes tortured while in custody. The press and the legal system agreed, as one judge put it, that “anarchism should be suppressed.” Among those arrested were Spies and Fielden, who had spoken at Haymarket that night; Engel and Fischer, two organizers of the event; Michael Schwab, Spies’ co-editor at the newspaper; Oscar Neebe, an outstanding organizer and leader of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA); and Louis Lingg, a fiery young anarchist who had arrived in the US only ten months before. Albert Parsons initially went into hiding but returned to stand trial. These eight had been selected to satisfy the public’s thirst for revenge. Of the eight Haymarket defendants, six were German.
With little more in common than their radical views, these eight became the convenient targets of official revenge. Although only a few were present at the event and none could be directly linked to the bombing, they were all charged with murder. Clearly, however, it was their views, not their actions, that faced judgment. The prosecutor, Julius Grinnell, made this obvious when he said at their trial, “Law is on trial…Anarchy is on trial.”
The defendants understood the dynamic and had little faith that justice would prevail. Most didn’t suspect, however, that all but one of them would be sentenced to death. Even these radicals had underestimated the paranoia and vindictiveness of a fearful public.
Legacy of Injustice
The trial of the Haymarket defendants was one of the most shameful events in US legal history. From the beginning – selection of jury members who openly admitted their prejudice – there was little doubt that the defendants would be convicted. Throughout the proceedings Judge Joseph Gary was consistently hostile to the accused. In his instructions to the jury he sealed their fate by saying that, if the defendants had ever suggested violence, they were guilty of murder – even if the perpetrator couldn’t be found.
After the verdict – death by hanging for all but one of the eight – the defendants spoke to the court. Most of them noted that the state was betraying the ideals on which the US was based. Spies said that they were condemned “because they had not lost their faith in the ultimate victory of liberty and justice.” Parsons pointed to the use of violence, including dynamite, recommended by newspapers as a solution to labor troubles. And Lingg, ever defiant, told the court, “I despise your order; your laws, your force-propped authority. Hang me for it!”
Despite their defiance, a strong campaign for clemency was launched. Many people who didn’t share the ideology of the anarchists nevertheless knew that the verdict and death sentences were unjust. Although an appeal to the US Supreme Court failed, public opinion began to shift. Labor groups, at first hesitant to support the men, joined the petitioners asking Governor Oglesby to intervene. People like author William Dean Howells and journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd joined with Europeans in pleas for mercy and justice. The Governor considered clemency, but powerful businessmen pressured against it.
Meanwhile, the condemned men reconciled themselves to their fate. Parsons, who had surrendered himself to stand trial after evading capture for six weeks, continued to write from his prison cell. He rejected the chance to obtain clemency by sending a letter of repentance to the governor. Like most of the others he defended his innocence and refused to beg. Schwab, Fielden and Spies eventually agreed to sign a letter asking for mercy. But Spies later reversed himself, instead urging the governor to hang him and spare the rest.
On November 10, 1887, just one day before the scheduled executions, the governor was finally persuaded to act. He commuted the sentences of Fielden and Schwab to life imprisonment. The others would be hung the next day. All but Lingg. On that same day, he committed suicide in his cell, using dynamite smuggled in by a friend.
On November 11, Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fischer faced the gallows. With nooses around their necks they spoke to the world. “Hurray for Anarchy!” said Fischer. “This is the happiest moment of my life.” From inside his hood, Spies added, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
And finally Parsons. “Will I be allowed to speak, O men of America? Let me speak, Sheriff Matson! Let the voice of the people be heard! O – “ He never completed the sentence.
It wasn’t until six years later than the truth began to emerge. Another governor, John Peter Altgeld, reviewed the evidence and trial transcripts for months before concluding that a tragic injustice had been committed. In an angry report, he condemned the authorities and vindicated the martyrs. The surviving three were freed. That act all but ended Altgeld’s brilliant political career.
The impact of the Haymarket affair was broad and profound. For decades afterward, the Chicago martyrs were a symbol for workers and radicals around the world. Their heroism and dignity inspired countless others to stand firm for their ideals. The trial and the hangings also made clear the fragility of US democracy. In 1886, government and corporate interests had joined forces to crush ideas they considered threatening. The bomb merely provided the excuse, and the story remains relevant to this day.
Haymarket was a crucial moment not only in labor history, but in the story of humanity’s hopes and errors. The martyrs may have erred in their talk of arms and dynamite. But society betrayed itself by condemning, out of fear, people who represented the frustrated aspirations of the poor for justice.
Fortunately, this attempt to smother dissent didn’t succeed. In the end, Spies was right when he said at the trial, “Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.”
The Long March Continues
Parsons knew that winning the eight-hour workday was only a stopgap measure. In fact, he predicted how business would respond: "Employers will put labor-saving machinery to work instead of the higher-priced laborers. The laborers will then for the same reason that they reduced the hours to eight, have to reduce them to six hours per day." He also linked the domestic struggle to emerging global trends. The elite view was that employment could only be expanded through finding new foreign markets; that meant keeping wages low to compete internationally. But Parsons and others argued that this would only depress purchasing power, ultimately destroying jobs both at home and overseas.
More than a century later, his analysis is still on target. Under the impacts of globalized "free trade" and increased automation, millions of people have lost their jobs. Even before the recent economic crisis, the pain was being felt in major corporate layoffs, hiring freezes, and plant relocations. Meanwhile, despite technological advances, the average number of hours most people work has increased. A recent survey found that two thirds of all workers put in more than a 40 hour week, and 40 percent work more than 50 hours a week. If the current trend continues, US employees will soon be spending as much time at their jobs as they did back in the 1920s.
Reading the business pages of most local newspapers, you could be left with the impression that, despite periodic “recessions,” the system is basically working. But it all depends on whose facts and statistics you prefer. Under-employment is a chronic problem, for example, and almost 20 percent of all US workers earn less than a livable wage. The income gap between men and women has been rising again, just as the number of female-headed households increases. These factors, plus the absence of employee benefits for about half of all part-timers, deepen the feminization of poverty.
Computers and other "labor-saving" machines allow companies to eliminate whole job categories, while employing a smaller work force for longer hours. Even paying time and a half overtime, they come out ahead. In the remaining US factories, the hours of work have increased as the number of employees has steadily declined. In Europe, where unemployment is usually higher, this trend has led to the rallying cry: Work Less, and Everyone Works. Yet, US business leaders remain adamantly opposed, arguing that staying "competitive" could require even longer hours.
Echoing the eight-hour day campaign, a movement to reduce the workweek could help the labor movement to recapture public confidence. Why? Largely because the lack of free time has become a serious problem for parents and communities. Some studies say that a third of the country’s youngsters are caring for themselves. Along with a decline in the amount of time parents spend with their kids has come an "abandonment" syndrome, manifesting itself in increasing childhood depression, delinquency, violence, drug abuse, and even suicide.
Many women in the US work a double shift – on the job and in the home. Not surprisingly, they are especially receptive to the prospect of less work and more free time. Although equal pay is the immediate concern, a resurgence of the US labor movement may ultimately hinge on organizing with women around a shorter workweek. Such a campaign would demonstrate that unions are concerned with more than their own members. It could also unite them with parenting, social justice, neighborhood, and women’s groups. One small step in this direction is legislation that would discourage the use of overtime as a way to avoid providing benefits for additional employees. The longer-term solution is a 30-hour week, and linking a higher minimum wage to consumer prices.
A shorter week would result in savings in unemployment compensation and welfare payments. The impact on culture, commerce, and family life would be even more profound. Actually, the choice is fairly clear: As machines continue to replace human beings in many industries, it is either longer hours for the remaining employees, with many left jobless or underemployed, or giving more people the chance both to share the available work and reconnect with their families. If organized labor can improve its image, there is still a chance to change course before too much more damage is done.
Henry Demarest Lloyd, an early critic of monopolies and loyal friend of labor, summed it up in 1893. Defending the right to organize and an eight-hour day, he remarked that uniting with others in common cause is the law of life. "Individuality becomes possible only by association," he explained. "Man isolated, would be man the brute … But every new tie gives a new individuality. And every attempt on the part of those who are the buyers of labor to prevent the sellers from uniting to promote and protect their interests is an attempt to dehumanize the worker and decivilize the world."
Fortunately, the dehumanization isn’t complete. And despite the setbacks, the long struggle to civilize the world of work can still be won.
Related video and radio play:
Greg Guma is an author, editor, and former CEO of Pacifica Radio. His books include The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do, and Passport to Freedom: A Guide for World Citizens. Greg writes about media and politics on his blog, Maverick Media (http://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com).