A Brief History of Labor
It’s not surprising to me that the birthplace of our nation and the birthplace of unions in America were the same place: Philadelphia.
In 1724, carpenters in Philadelphia joined together to form the Carpenters Company, a loose union designed to educate its members in architectural sciences and to support those who fell upon unfortunate circumstances, becoming the first guild in America.
In 1768, the lot was purchased upon which Carpenters Hall would soon be built. Designed by a company member in 1770, Carpenters Hall was to take on extraordinary significance for our country. The first Continental Congress met there. The Declaration of Independence was signed there. Ben Franklin set up what functioned as the first Library of Congress on the 2nd floor of the Hall.
While the Carpenters Company was the first guild, the first union to collect dues and meet regularly was also formed in Philadelphia, by shoemakers.
Workers soon organized in Boston, and New York. According to this page:
In "pursuit of happiness" through shorter hours and higher pay, printers were the first to go on strike, in New York in 1794; cabinet makers struck in 1796; carpenters in Philadelphia in 1797; cordwainers in 1799.The eighteen-hundreds ushered in the age of factories. And with factories, the link between employer and employee was effectively severed. Whereas before, employers and workers labored together in small spaces, talking to each other, learning about each others lives, becoming friends and sharing political views, factories allowed the employer to hire hundreds and in some cases thousands or workers. With distance came disregard. The workers were upset because where they had once handcrafted items, now they were reduced to cogs in a machine, cranking out carbon copies of items. It was dehumanizing. It was only natural that this led people to bond more closely to their co-workers, and to organize together to fight their working conditions.
Early unions were considered dangerous conspiracies by employers and by the courts:
Employers found the courts to be an effective weapon to protect their interests. In 1806, eight Philadelphia shoemakers were brought to trial after leading an unsuccessful strike. The court ruled that any organizing of workers to raise wages was an illegal act. Unions were "conspiracies" against employers and the community. In later cases, courts ruled that almost any action taken by unions to increase wages might be criminal. These decisions destroyed the effectiveness of the nation's early labor unions. Not until 1842 was the way opened again for workers to organize. That year several union shoemakers in Boston were brought to trial. They were charged with refusing to work with non-union shoemakers. A municipal court judge found the men guilty of conspiracy. But an appeal to a higher court resulted in a victory for labor unions generally. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled that it was not unlawful for workers to engage peacefully in union activity. It was their right to organize, he said. Shaw's decision was widely accepted. For many years following this decision, unions did not have to fear conspiracy charges.
In the early days of our country, it was common for people to work 12-13 hours a day, to work six days a week, and for children to work as well as adults. Many of them lived in company housing facilities, and were paid with company script, redeemable only at company shops for overpriced goods.
In 1825, carpenters in Boston struck for a 10-hour workday, a relief from the longer hours they were expected to work.
Concurrent with the Civil War came the cry from workers for an eight-hour day. In Chicago, these cries became particularly effective, for a time:
When the Chicago labor movement emerged in 1864, the eight-hour day quickly became its central demand. Exhausted by 12 to 14 hours a day of work, six days a week, workers throughout the city and state organized to secure a law limiting the workday to eight hours. In 1867, the Illinois legislature passed such a law but allowed a huge loophole that permitted employers to contract with their employees for longer hours. Trying to eliminate that option, Chicago labor called for a citywide strike that began on May 1, 1867, and practically shut down the city's economy for a week. When the strike collapsed, the law collapsed with it and workers were left unprotected.The first major nationwide strike was The Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Before the “Great Depression” of the 1920s, there were a series of smaller periods of depression.
A bank panic in September of 1873 triggered a depression across America. Layoffs, wage cuts, breadlines and other misery forced the desperate workers to take collective action. But the trigger point came in 1877, when many Americans felt that the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, won the presidency through fraud! Does this sound familiar?
Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, was not the man for whom a majority of voters had cast their ballots the previous year. Democrat Samuel Tilden overcame the Ohio governor in the popular vote but 20 disputed electoral votes from Florida and other states threw the election into House of Representatives.The final straw came when the Pennsylvania Railroad cut wages by 10% for a second time, in June of 1877, followed by a July announcement that the numbers of trains to be serviced would double, while the workforce would not. Another railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, cut its already too short workweek from three days to two, further starving the workers. On July 16, firemen and brakemen refused to work, and refused to let replacements be sent in. They managed to halt all railroad traffic at the Camden Junction just outside of Baltimore.
Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad reached a deal with Hayes: in exchange for a federal bailout of his troubled investment in the Texas and Pacific Railroad, the millionaire industrialist would deliver Congressional votes to Hayes. As a further inducement, the Republicans promised to end Reconstruction, a blatant betrayal of African Americans. Southern Congressmen deserted Tilden, handing the election to Hayes.
President Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction and its promise of political equality for former slaves.
Word of the strike reached workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia, who stopped working on the trains. These protests fanned out like a ripple in water, reaching Chicago and places beyond. With nearly half the train’s in the country halted, President Hayes sent in the National Guard and other federal troops to force the workers back into action. Curiously, the local police and militia sided with the workers. Although the workers were promised an eight hour week and a rise in pay, as soon as the military arrived, all promises went out the window. As one worker put it, “we were shot back to work.” This event solidified both the union movement and the class of business owners who opposed it.
in 1882, a thirty year-old Irish Catholic man named Peter J. McGuire, who already had over ten years experience organizing workers from all over the growing United States, introduced a resolution to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC)proposing a “festive parade through the streets of the city” of New York, on the first Monday in September. The parade was done to bring attention to the effort towards the eight-hour workday. But the parade was also a shrewd reminder of the power of the people when united. McGuire’s efforts were so successful that other cities followed suit. In 1887, the state of Oregon was the first to declare the first Monday in September a holiday. As celebrations grew, Congress declared the creation of Labor Day, in 1894.
McGuire was equally responsible for the first May Day parade, also intended to show the power of Labor, and to advocate for the eight-hour day. After 80,000 people marched in Chicago, 350,000 workers in other cities made a similar march.
In Chicago, a peaceful meeting at Chicago’s Haymarket Square was broken up by police. But a man named Schnaubelt threw a bomb into the crowd, killing several police officers, and launching what became known as the “Haymarket Riot.” The violence put an end, for a while, to the calls for an eight-hour workday.
In 1893, another depression led to another strike, this time against the Pullman Palace Car Company. Management slashed workers pay but did not cut the pay of management; predictably, the workers rebelled. They were led by Eugene V. Debs, who initially opposed the strike, fearing the mood in the country was not well suited to support their needs at this time. The Pullman railroad cars were created in the city of Pullman, in a near-feudal setting:
Its residents all worked for the Pullman company, their paychecks drawn from Pullman bank, and their rent, set by Pullman, deducted automatically from their weekly paychecks. The town, and the company, operated smoothly and successfully for more than a decade.When the Pullman company started laying off workers, cutting wages, but not cutting rents, employees, led by the American Railway Union under Eugene Debs, walked out. Railroad workers in other cities started boycotting trains carrying Pullman cars. And the President, Grover Cleveland, stepped in. He claimed the strike interfered with the ability of the federal government to deliver mail, and therefore declared the strike a federal crime. (As a side note, Debs was not a Socialist at the time of his arrest. He became one while jailed, where he started reading Karl Marx.)
Miners were having the least success with their protests. Coal was known as black gold then in the same way oil is called black gold now. Coal powered industry. Without coal, there was no market growth. Federal troops were frequently brought in to break up coal miner strikes.
The first major miners’ strike came in the same state where the most tragic strike would also take place: Colorado.
These events also introduce us to one of the most extraordinary women of the labor movement, one who would not live to see a magazine named after her: Mary Harris Jones, AKA Mother Jones. Born poor in Ireland, she came to America when her father established himself as an American citizen and sent home for his family. She married a union man, who died in a fever epidemic when she was only in her mid thirties. She worked for a time for the very wealthy in Chicago, and was struck by the gap between their outrageous fortune and the extreme poverty of the workers she could see through the window.
Mother Jones became more and more involved in the labor movement, and found herself in demand. Nearly every major movement in the country wanted her. Could she come help them? She traveled far and wide, well into old age, to help the poor workers across America.
In her autobiography, she describes the problem in Colorado at the time of the 1903 strike against the John D. Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company at Cripple Creek:
The state of Colorado belonged not to a republic but to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the Victor -Company and their dependencies. The governor was their agent. The militia under Bell did their bidding. Whenever the masters of the state told the governor to bark, he yelped for them like a mad hound. Whenever they told the military to bite, they bit.The workers appealed to the United Mine Workers union for help. The executive board of the union sent Mother Jones to look into the matter, and report back. She put on an old calico dress and sunbonnet, and went down to the coal fields of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.
The people of Colorado had voted overwhelmingly for an eight-hour day. The legislature passed an eight hour law but the courts had declared it unconstitutional. Then when the measure was submitted directly to the people, they voted for it with 40,000 votes majority. But the next legislature, which was controlled by the mining interests, failed to pass the bill.
The miners saw that they could not get their demands through peaceful legislation. That they must fight. That they must strike. All the metal miners struck first. The strike extended into New Mexico and Utah. It became an ugly war. The metal miners were anxious to have the coal miners join them in their struggle.
As a peddler, I went through the various coal camps, eating in the homes of the miners, staying all night with their families. I found the conditions under which they lived deplorable. They were in practical slavery to the company, who owned their houses, owned all the land, so that if a miner did own a house he must vacate whenever it pleased the land owners. They were paid in scrip instead of money so that they could not go away if dissatisfied. They must buy at company stores and at company prices. The coal they mined was weighed by an agent of the company and the miners could not have a check weighman to see that full credit was given them. The schools, the churches, the roads belonged to the Company. I felt, after listening to their stories, after witnessing their long patience that the time was ripe for revolt against such brutal conditions.Mother Jones reported back to the UMW, and they authorized a strike to press for an eight-hour day, and money rather than company scrip. The strike shut down the state of Colorado, which badly needed the coal in the cruel November temperatures. Under intense pressure, the union caved in, and ordered the workers in the northern part of the state to stop their strike.
"Are you through?" said I.She went to the convention set up to discuss this issue, and addressed the workers:
"Then I am going to tell you that if God Almighty wants this strike called off for his benefit and not for the miners, I am going to raise my voice against it. And as to President John paying me, ... he never paid me a penny in his life. It is the hard earned nickels and dimes of the miners that pay me, and it is their interests that I am going to serve."
"You English speaking miners of the northern fields promised your southern brothers, seventy per cent of whom do not speak English, that you would support them to the end. Now you are asked to betray them, to make a separate settlement. You have a common enemy and it is your duty to fight to a finish. The enemy seeks to conquer by dividing your ranks, by making distinctions between North and South, between American and foreign. You are all miners, fighting a common cause, a common master. The iron heel feels the same to all flesh. Hunger and suffering and the cause of your children bind more closely than a common tongue. I am accused of helping the Western Federation of Miners, as if that were a crime, by one of the National board members. I plead guilty. I know no East or West, North nor South when it comes to my class fighting the battle for justice. If it is my fortune to live to see the industrial chain broken from every workingman's child in America, and if then there is one black child in Africa in bondage, there shall I go."The delegates gave her a standing ovation. They took a vote. The majority of the membership voted to support their southern brothers, against the union president’s wishes. Sadly, this incident then pitted the union president against Mother Jones. He wanted her out, and asked the Governor to evict her from Colorado.
Penniless, without food or shelter, she waited at the train station for the train to Denver. She asked the conductor to take her to Denver, and he said she would. Honest to the core, Mother Jones showed him the letter from the Governor, saying she wouldn’t want him to lose his job. He said to hell with his job – he would take her there.
When she got to Denver, she wrote the following note:
"Mr. Governor, you notified your dogs of war to put me out of the state. They complied with your instructions. I hold in my hand a letter that was handed to me by one of them, which says 'under no circumstances return to this state.' I wish to notify you, governor, that you don't own the state. When it was admitted to the sisterhood of states, my fathers gave me a share of stock in it; and that is all they gave to you. The civil courts are open. If I break a law of state or nation it is the duty of the civil courts to deal with me. That is why my fore-fathers established those courts to keep dictators and tyrants such as you from interfering with civilians. I am right here in the capital, after being out nine or ten hours, four or five blocks from your office. I want to ask you, governor, what in Hell are you going to do about it?"She called a messenger and asked him to deliver it. When the Governor heard it, his face grew red. He asked a reporter who had just heard the note read, “what shall I do?” “Leave her alone,” the reporter answered. “There is no more patriotic citizen in America."
The northern workers were eventually pressured into resuming work, which brought the strike to an end. Tired, hungry, and without support, the southern workers returned to the mines.
Ten years later, the festering wounds from Cripple Creek erupted anew. Company men wielding guns were routinely breaking streaks, killing indiscriminately, and torturing the workers and their families in horrific ways. Try as she might, Mother Jones and other union workers could not bring attention to their cause.
Until Ludlow happened. As Mother Jones wrote:
Little children roasted alive make a front page story. Dying by inches of starvation and exposure does not.John D. Rockefeller hired essentially a private army to put down the strikers who threatened his interests at Ludlow. Mother Jones described the horrific scene:
By the end of the day, at least 24 miners, and 11 children had been murdered.
On the 19th of April, 1914, machine guns, used on the strikers in the Paint Creek strike, were placed in position above the tent colony of Ludlow. Major Pat Hamrock and Lieutenant K. E. Linderfelt were in charge of the militia, the majority of whom were, company gun-men sworn in as soldiers.
Early in the morning soldiers approached the colony with a demand from headquarters that Louis Tikas, leader of the Greeks, surrender two Italians. Tikas demanded a warrant for their arrest. They had none. Tikas refused to surrender them. The soldiers returned to quarters. A signal bomb was fired. Then another.
Immediately the machine guns began spraying the flimsy tent colony, the only home the wretched families of the miners had, riddling it with bullets. Like iron rain, bullets' upon men, women and children.
The women and children fled to the hills. Others tarried. The men defended their home with their guns. All day long the firing continued. Men fell dead, their faces to the ground. Women dropped. The little Snyder boy was shot through the head, trying to save his kitten. A child carrying water to his dying mother was killed.
By five o'clock in the afternoon, the miners had no more food, nor water, nor ammunition. They had to retreat with their wives and little ones into the hills. Louis Tikas was riddled with shots while he tried to lead women and children to safety. They perished with him.
Night came. A raw wind blew down the canyons where men, women and children shivered and wept. Then a blaze lighted the sky. The soldiers, drunk with blood and with the liquor they had looted from the saloon, set fire to the tents of Ludlow with oil-soaked torches. The tents, all the poor furnishings, the clothes and bedding of the
miners' families burned. Coils of barbed wire were stuffed into the well, the miners' only water supply.
After it was over, the wretched people crept back to bury their dead. In a dugout under a burned tent, the charred bodies of eleven little children and two women were found-unrecognizable. Everything lay in ruins. The wires of bed springs writhed on the ground as if they, too, had tried to flee the horror.
Oil and fire and guns had robbed men and women and children of their homes and slaughtered tiny babies and defenseless women. Done by order of Lieutenant Linderfelt, a savage, brutal executor of the will of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. The strikers issued a general call to arms: Every able bodied man must shoulder a gun to protect himself and his family from assassins, from arson and plunder. From jungle days to our own so-named civilization, this is a man's inherent right. To a man they armed, through-out the whole strike district. Ludlow went on burning in their hearts.As both sides armed for a full-out war, a delegation went from Ludlow to talk to President Wilson. Wilson ordered a three-year truce, which the mine operators refused. John D. Rockfeller denied any responsibility for the massacre at Ludlow. Wilson sent out the United States cavalry to stop the gunmen on both sides. And writer Upton Sinclair staged anti-Rockefeller demonstrations.
After the massacre, the United Mine Workers called off the strike. The union had lost, but this time, so had the establishment. Rockefeller’s image was forever tarnished, and no amount of philanthropy was ever going to wash that blood away. And the union movement was now a lit fire, poised to sweep across the nation. Out of the embers of Ludlow came the recognition that collective action is the only way to protect the rights of the individual, because no individual is powerful enough to fight on his own.
Mother Jones is hardly remembered today. And that’s a tragedy, since her voice showed us that passion begets action, and that we have to be willing to stand up and make a difference. The chapter in her autobiography devoted to the Ludlow incident is titled, “You don’t need a vote to raise hell.”
As for the eight-hour workday, it would take 74 years from the 1864 demand before workers would have a reasonable work day. It took the passage of President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act, before eight hours became the legal workday in America.
The battle of labor has been a long and arduous uphill battle, and one that has claimed as many lives as some of our military engagements. Just as we honor soldiers who give their lives for us, we must also honor those who put their lives on the line to strike for better wages, better living conditions, more equality. Union wages made possible the middle class in America. And as unions have become weaker, we’ve seen the middle class shrink.
On this Labor Day, I hope you’ll join me in a moment of deep gratitude to all those with the courage to stand up and fight for what they deserve. And after Labor Day, think about how all these events happened not from electing the right people, but telling the elected officials what to do, by making their choice inevitable. That's what we need to do. We keep trying to elect leaders. But we need to BE the leaders.