Tuesday, February 3, 2015

You Can't Scare Me I'm Sticking With the Union!


Let me start off by apologizing for the unpardonable delay betwixt posts. This semester is kicking my a$$ physically and mentally. I'll get through it, but it won't be easy. I'm teaching 8 classes (one less than last semester), but one of them is a new prep. I have never taught the second half of Western Civ and so I am sort of working on week ahead of where the students are. I am also taking my graduate Criminal Justice courses, hoping to finish by next spring. We'll see if that plan works or not! And since we are talking about work, I thought it might be a good idea to do a short post on organized labor! People have strong opinions on this topic, one way or the other. Just remember, I'm right and everyone else is wrong! (I jest........partially!)

Specifically I would like to discuss an event that happened in Chicago in 1886. Some call it the Haymarket Riot. Others prefer to call it the Haymarket Affair. Either is correct. The Gilded Age in US History was a period of capitalism in its purest form, meaning no government interference with businesses at all. Any attempt to regulate things such as health and safety, wages, or the length of the workday was considered an attack on the free market principles the country was founded on. Yes, exploiting workers (including children) became a national pastime for the wealthy "Robber Barons". They made a killing, literally, since fatal workplace accidents were commonplace. National labor organizations declared May 1, 1886 to be the day for a national strike over the issue of the length of the workday. Labor wanted to mandate an 8 hour day rather than the customary twelve hour shifts six days in a tow. Shocking, I know!

When May 1st arrived, workers across the country went out strike. "Eight hour day with no cut in pay!" was the rallying cry. No one knows for sure how many people actually went on strike, but it is a few hundred thousand at least. Chicago, however, would be where things took a turn for the worse. On May 3rd, a large group of strikers gathered outside the McCormick Machine Company. Union employees (predominantly Irish-American) had been locked out of the plant by Pinkerton Agents for several months prior to this. The plant was being operated by strikebreakers (or scabs). When the close of the workday arrived, striker workers attempted to confront the scabs. The police fired into the crowd without provocation killing at least two unarmed people though some sources recorded six fatalities. One union organizer said that "this butchering of people was done for the express purpose of defeating the eight hour movement."

In response to this, another rally was planned for the following evening, May 4th, in Haymarket Square. The crowd of perhaps a thousand or more people was very calm. In fact, speakers such as Albert Spies (quoted above) said that the point was to explain their demands, not engage in any acts of violence. Rain dampened the mood of many in the crowd and they began to drift away. However some hardy souls stayed to listen to the last speaker. Near 10:30 pm, the police arrived and ordered the crowd to leave. They insisted that they were a peaceful and thus lawful assembly. The police disagreed. They formed themselves into a wedge formation and began to advance towards the crowd.

Suddenly, someone tossed a homemade grenade (some have referred to it as a bomb or a pipe bomb) in the path of the police. At first it looked like it would not ignite due to the wet conditions, but then an explosion sent shrapnel tearing through the ranks of the police officers. One was killed immediately and six others were mortally wounded. The police then opened fire on the crowd. Some have maintained that the crowd simply fled, leaving their dead and dying behind. Others have said that some were armed and fought back. It took only five minutes before no one was left in the square except the police and the dead or wounded. Casualty figures vary. At least four workers were killed and scores more wounded. In addition to the seven police officers killed by the explosion, some 60 plus were wounded by gunfire. Who shot them? Probably other policemen! One police official was quoted as saying "A very large number of the police were wounded be each other's revolvers. It was every man for himself. While some got two or three squares away, the rest emptied their revolvers, mainly into each other!" At the low end, at least 150 people were injured with more than 10 killed if you combine both the crowd and police casualties. All in the name of the eight hour day!

The police, media, and public latched onto this as an example of foreign anarchist agitation. The WASP establishment attempted to paint everyone in the labor organization as a person who wanted to overthrow the government and thus were a danger to society. My friend AJP might call that establishment the IWSCP! Dozens of people were arrested and several were put on trial for their lives. The person who threw the bomb was never identified (it may have, in fact, been someone who wanted to "frame" the union leaders for committing a violent act). This did not stop the authorities from trying others instead. Of the "Chicago Eight" put on trial for the murder of the policemen, only two had been present at the time of the blast! Simply writing articles in favor of an eight hour day was enough to get a person put on trial for their life. All eight were convicted after a trial that did not approach anything like fair. One received a lengthy prison term and seven were sentenced to death. Two of those sentences were commuted to life in prison and so only five faced execution. One committed suicide by biting down on a blasting cap that had been smuggled into his prison cell. What a way to go!

Despite protests all over the world, the men were hanged on November 11, 1887. As they were marched to the gallows, the men sang the Marseillaise. Mere seconds before the trap was sprung, Albert Spies shouted "The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!" And strangle they did. Through negligence or design, the drop was not long enough to break their necks. Witnesses grew ill at the sight of the four bound men writhing on the end of the ropes for several minutes in the agonies of strangulation. All so that we might work an eight hour day.

Friends, I am the first to admit that today labor unions have frequently moved away from their roots. Many of the issues they argue for are unnecessarily divisive. But I have always been a proud Union Man as my grandfather was before me. When people complain (sometimes with merit) about unions today, ask them if they enjoy their eight hour workday. Their paid sick leave. Their vacation days. Their workers compensation should they be injured. Those benefits did not come without a price. Hundreds of people were willing to die to make that happen. Many thousands of others died before enough people were willing to take notice that we had an issue. The problem has never been with capitalism. It has been with capitalists.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who is proud to stand with my brothers and sisters in the United Steelworkers Union as they strike on behalf of safe working conditions and a safer shift schedule. I wish you all Godspeed and I hope that "the suits" listen to reason and you are able to return to work quickly. You know, if adjunct faculty across the nation were unionized, we would not be treated like crap like we are now. We'd actually get some benefits and security with our jobs instead of being treated like academic day laborers. But that is a subject for another day.

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