Today is International Workers’ Day, or in many places, just Labor Day. It was originally chosen to commemorate the Haymarket affair. It’s easy enough to get all of the history of labor organizing confused because it is all very repetitive. Workers try to get rights, businesses get the government to beat down the workers. It really is that simple. The primary purpose of the police and military is to keep the power elite in control by “controlling” the lower classes. If you see the police as being represented by the “Officer Friendly” nonsense, you’ve lived a charmed life — most likely because you are rich.
It is hard not to relate the Haymarket affair to what has been going on all around the country. Things really haven’t changed. Then as now, the media tended to ignore protests unless they got violent. Then as now, police and other kinds of brutality on behalf of the power elite were ignored. And, of course, the police were rarely held accountable. The day before Haymarket, the police began shooting into the striking workers — killing a couple of them. This led to the Haymarket demonstration when a group of anarchist threw a bomb that led to the deaths of seven police officers and an unclear number of workers. Typical that the number of civilian deaths is uncertain.
The direct result of the Haymarket affair is that four anarchists — none of them directly responsible, and probably not even indirectly — were put to death. Let’s be really clear here: they weren’t put to death because of the bombing. They were put to death as a cultural symbol — a message to uppity workers. The case against these men had nothing to do with the crime itself. The trial was all about what they had written in the past. Do we still believe free speech exists in the United States when it clashes with powerful interests? Sure, we allow Nazis to parade through Jewish neighborhoods. But businesses must be allowed to counter any union organizing with weeks of mandated propaganda. People’s feelings don’t matter. Businesses’ profits do.
The short term result of Haymarket was a huge backlash against the labor movement. And, of course, a groundswell of support for our brave men in uniform. You know: the ones who the day before Haymarket had shot indiscriminately into a crowd on peaceful strikers. Oh, and what were these terrible workers fighting for? A little thing called the 8 hour work day. At that time, people at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company were working ten hours per day, six days per week. Do you get overtime if you work more than eight hours per day? Thank these workers and organizers, many of whom died in the fight.
Despite public opinion — and all those truth-telling journalists who just so happened to find the truth by supporting the power elite — the Haymarket affair stiffened the resolve of union supporters. It is all about solidarity. I have argued in the past that this is what capitalists most fear about unions. Any given benefit or workplace reform can later be destroyed — as long as the capitalists can divide and conquer the workers. And they’ve largely succeeded. About the only people I know who are big supporters of unions are those who are in unions. And even inside of some unions, such as grocery workers, there is now a double standard: older workers are well paid and younger workers have more or less minimum wage jobs.
But the fight continues. Happy International Workers’ Day!