On a quiet evening in 1884, the American Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a common sense resolution declaring that, as of May 1, 1886, eight hours would constitute a day of labor. The call went out for a general strike to achieve that modest, humanitarian objective.
One hundred and twenty years later, the demand for an eight-hour workday no longer seems radical but, before the rise of the labor movement, workers were virtual slaves to their industrial masters. Job safety was not economical. Child labor and immigrant exploitation were commonplace. Employees typically worked 10, 12 and 14 hour days, six days a week, without compensation. On-the-job injuries were tough luck and wages, even for highly skilled workers, were barely adequate for subsistence.
In the years before the rise of the labor movement, there was no middle class. American society was divided between the poor, the working poor and the elite.
On May 1 1886, behind their fortresses of greed, their towers of avarice, the ruling class was quaking in their shining leather boots. They sensed what was at stake. Like the feudal lords of old Europe, they were confronting their first great challenge. Give them an eight-hour day and there would be no end to their demands. The rallying cry of a living wage would not long be silent.
An army of thugs, police and militia, was amassed to confront the leaders of the labor movement in Chicago. On May 3, police fired into a crowd of strikers, killing four and setting the stage for a mass demonstration the next day in Haymarket Square. By all accounts, the assembly was peaceful when the police closed in and ordered the crowd to disperse. An explosion rang out, a policeman was killed, and the entire labor movement was charged with cold-blooded murder.
To this day, no one knows who committed the crime but we do know that those who were tried, convicted and executed were innocent.  Seven of the eight were not in attendance and the eighth was on the speaker’s platform at the time of the explosion. The police were not interested in details and the authorities were blatant in their appeal to the public’s fear of lawlessness. It was a time when anarchists were blamed for everything from food shortages to natural disasters. The accused were guilty of being radicals and in the atmosphere of May Day 1886 that was crime enough.
The Haymarket Affair fueled the passions of a generation of dissidents and rallied the industrial world to the cause of American labor. It was an assembly in Paris that first declared May Day a day of international labor in tribute to the Haymarket martyrs.
Despite the relentless and brutal efforts of industry and capital, the labor movement grew and prospered, giving birth to the American middle class and setting the prerequisite conditions for a relatively affluent consumer economy.
On May Day 2005, it is a good time to reflect on the many who gave their lives in the cause of organized labor so that future generations of workers would enjoy a living wage, an eight-hour day, worker’s compensation, decent working conditions, basic job security and standards of safety.
Of equal and greater importance, May Day 2005 is a critical time to consider that what has been gained through generations of blood and sweat can easily be lost through negligence and fear.
What the elite have always failed to understand is that a vibrant middle class is the foundation of a strong economy. Without a strong middle class, there are not enough consumers of goods to sustain the whole. Houses are not built, mortgages are foreclosed, automobiles remain on the showroom floors, small businesses fold, plants close and the system eventually collapses.
Today, the workers of all nations are under siege. In America, good paying jobs are outsourced to foreign labor. Forced to take low paying jobs, our wages are in perpetual decline. State by state, unions are under attack with “right to work” laws and cleverly worded regulations to negate overtime pay. More and more workers, under the burden of mounting debt, are compelled to take second jobs, rendering the eight-hour day obsolete. Fearful of losing our jobs, workers are willing to sacrifice health insurance and reluctant to report unsafe conditions or unjust practices.
It is fashionable to blame migrant and foreign workers for all our myriad woes. It is easy to fix blame on those who have even less say, even less power, than we do. It is also wrong.
Blaming the migrant for job loss is like blaming the child for child labor. Blaming the foreign worker for exportation is like blaming the slave for slavery.
The army of migrants, who must annually run the gauntlet of a harsh environment, unscrupulous coyotes, bandits, crooks, border patrol and vigilantes, are victims of this systemic exploitation as much and more than we are. The indentured do not volunteer for their servitude; they are compelled to it. They do not choose to steal American jobs because they despise us; they come because they too must survive.
The same is true of the workers in foreign sweatshops (a generous term for working environments in many third world nations), whose conditions of employment are every bit as deplorable as American labor in the nineteenth century.
The answer to this seeming conundrum is a Kyoto Accord of Labor: an international recognition and confirmation of the fundamental human right to a living wage.
Once firmly established, the principle itself will shame those governments who, under the cover of free market economics, allow and condone the disgrace of labor exploitation. Moreover, it will shame those collaborator nations and international corporations who encourage these inhumanities with their cooperative silence and implied consent.
It does not require a master of economy to foresee a dim future if we do not alter the regressive path we are on. It makes no sense to continue blaming migrants and foreign laborers for our problems for, in the end, we are all on the same sinking ship.
There was a time when no nation on earth was allowed trade with slave nations without severe consequences. The modern version of slavery proceeds with impunity. When international complicity ends and the exploiting entities are fully exposed and brought to account, the practice will end and the world will witness the birth of a global middle class, which in turn will form the foundation of a just and prosperous world economy.
Those who were derided as the radicals of Chicago’s Haymarket Square were right all along: The workers of the world must unite. There is no other way.
Jack Random is the author of Ghost
Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press) the Jazzman Chronicles,
Volumes I and II. The Chronicles have been published by CounterPunch, the
Albion Monitor, FirstPeoplesCentury, Trinicenter, Global Research and other
notable sites. The Jazzman Chronicles are available at
City Lights Bookstore
in SF. Visit his website:
1) Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf Fischer and George Engel were hanged November 11, 1887; Louis Lingg committed suicide in jail, while Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe and Michael Schwab were pardoned in 1893.
* The Onion Eater by Joe Bageant
Other Articles by Jack Random
Aristocracy: Confessions of a Nonbeliever