The founding fathers signed The Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776 and sixteen years later, the first local union was formed in Philadelphia. Labor Unions are as American as the Constitution.
The history of Labor Unions has been a long and bloody battle since it’s beginning. Many workers lost their lives in pursue of that “happiness” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. That “happiness” that was so important to our founding fathers as to mention it as part of the fundamental right of every human being but that those in power, mostly corporations, didn’t believe the working class was entitled to… they didn’t believe it back in 1776 and it is obvious they don’t believe it today. What is transpiring today against labor unions is clear proof of that.
Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s factory owners discovered that children could operate the machines for a lower wage than adults, so children as young as 6 were used to work in these factories. The regular working hours were anywhere from 12 to 18 hours a day and from six to seven days a week, in other words, the poor where on this planet to serve the rich, nothing else.
The owners of these factories couldn’t care less for the safety of those he employed and much less the health and well-being of their employees. It was a different kind of slavery; a cheaper one and the wealthy knew this. These employees had nothing, no vacations, no days off, no breaks, no health insurance, no overtime payment. For the owners of these factories they were expendable, replaceable and just a step above animals that deserved no considerations because, in their mind, if they did get any consideration then they would want more and produce less.
From 1794 to 1834 many labor unions were developing throughout the United States, mainly in New York and Philadelphia. This was as a direct result of the constant abuse suffered by the American worker. It was the beginning of organized unions and of a struggle that would last over a century.
There is not much information about the violence early labor organizations encountered and/or inflicted. It is until 1851 that we begin to see a systematic bloodshed in the history of labor unions in the United States. The first record of labor members loosing their lives for striking happened in Portage, New York where two railroad strikers were shot dead and many were injured by the state militia. It is the beginning of corporations and the government to contain and restrain the oppressed masses.
Fear of death has never stopped people when they feel that they and their loved ones are cornered and abused without end on sight. It has been the most forceful source of strength throughout history, even in animals. When there is no way out, it is the nature of all species to fight back and the same can be said here. Unions didn’t back down, instead they grew stronger and in 1866 the first National Labor Union was formed.
There were many bloody confrontations between workers/unions and companies/government. The first recorded confrontation took place in New York City on January 13, 1874, where unemployed workers were protesting. The mounted police charged against a crowd composed of women, children and men beating them indiscriminately, leaving hundreds of casualties in their path. The Police Commissioner, Abram Duryee claimed that confrontation as “the most glorious sight” he had ever seen.
On May 4th at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois a protest took place organized by the Knights of Labor, which gave birth to what is recognized worldwide as the International Labor Day (May Day). During that protest and it is not clear to this day, a protestor threw a bomb to a police squad that was there to break up the protest. The police responded by frantically shooting at the protestors, killing over a dozen people and injuring about 100. I find it funny that this day is observed all over the world, on that day (May 1) as Labor Day, except in the country where this massacre took place.
July 12, 1917. Bisbee, Arizona. The Bisbee Deportation: Sheriff Harry Wheeler gathered thousands of armed vigilantes and kidnapped 1,185 men, most of them Mexican immigrants, that were protesting against the safety conditions of copper mines in Bisbee, Arizona. The protesters were placed in manure boxcars and shipped to the New Mexico desert. The case was referred to the State of Arizona, which refused to take action, calling the actions of the Sheriff and the vigilantes as patriotism and showing their support for the war. Wouldn’t that be exactly what Governor Brewer would say today?
The above are just a few of the many historical confrontations that American Union workers went through to secure fair working wages and safe conditions for themselves and for generations to come. It is sad that today the Republican Party is destroying this legacy. A legacy where so many children, men and women fought so hard for and where many lost their life so we could have a better future.
Joe Hill was a renowned labor leader that was sentenced to death by firing squad in Salt Lake City. Before his death on November 19, 1915 he sent a letter to Bill Haywood, leader of the IWW Union where he wrote: “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.”
“If the workers take a notion,
They can stop all speeding trains,
Every ship upon the ocean
They can tie with mighty chains.
Every wheel in the creation,
Every mine and every mill,
Fleets and armies of the nation,
Will at their command stand still.”
- Joe Hill
So I say to all American workers those same words written almost 100 years ago. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize!