Monday, September 5, 2016

History of Labor Day - And a Poem

The origins of a day honoring those who do the work of the world can be traced to Chicago on May 1st, 1886. There was a general strike that day, led by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, pushing for an eight-hour work day. At the time, regular shifts were from 10 to 16 hours a day. If you were injured or killed on the job (which happened quite frequently) there was no compensation. "If you can't work, buddy, then you starve."

On May 4, there was a related labor rally held in Haymarket Square, in Chicago, organized by several anarchist groups. When the rally was breaking up, someone threw a bomb. Seven policemen were killed in the blast. The explosion touched off a police shooting spree. No one knows how many were wounded or killed by the police.The bomber was never caught.

Haymarket Massacre

As a result of the bombing, eight anarchist labor leaders were jailed and put on trial. Four of them weren’t even at the rally. Eventually, four were hanged on dubious charges and a fifth killed himself in prison the night before his hanging. Three spent six years in prison until pardoned by Illinois Governor Altgeld, who declared that the state had, in the words of the prosecution, put "Anarchy on trial,” in hopes that the executions would be the beginning of the end of anarchist ideas in the US. And they were. The conception of anarchists as crazy, bearded men with bombs became the reigning image throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

On  May 1st, 1890, the fourth anniversary of the Haymarket massacre, a group of labor leaders met in Paris to establish the Second International. To these Europeans, the executed Chicago radicals were revered martyrs. In an act of solidarity, the Second International set May 1, 1890, as a day of protest. May 1st eventually evolved into International Worker’s Day around the globe. But not in the US. It was too closely associated with radicals and the Haymarket massacre.

In 1893, a national wave of bankruptcies plunged the US into a deep depression – resulting in strikes across the nation. The Pullman Strike started in Chicago in May 1894. President Grover Cleveland, a conservative Democrat, was determined to crush the strike, but did not want to alienate the American Federation of Labor, which was not yet involved in the Pullman dispute. 1894 was a midterm election year and the Democratic Party did not want to be seen as an enemy of labor. (They weren’t going to do anything for workers, mind you, but they needed their votes…not much has changed).

Bloody Thursday Strike/July 5th, 1934/San Francisco

Cleveland and the Democrats hit upon a possible solution: They would proclaim a national Labor Day to honor the worker. But not on May 1st– never on May 1st – MUST NOT CHOOSE May 1st – because of its association with socialists and anarchists and the Haymarket massacre and the radicals of the Second International. 

(Don’t pay them more money, don’t give them more protection in the workplace…give them a holiday! It’s the American way!)

In September 1882, a few unions had begun to celebrate a Labor Day in New York City, and by 1894 the event had become an annual late-summer tradition in New York, adopted by numerous states. Cleveland seized upon the September holiday as a way to reward labor without connecting it to May Day. On June 28, 1894, Cleveland signed an act of Congress establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday on the first Monday of September. 

Less than a week later, the president sent federal troops into Chicago to crush the Pullman strike.

AFSCME Sanitation Workers Strike/March 29, 1968/Memphis


The Invisible Hand
                                                                                    For Michaela


                        In the boutique grocery store
                                             I overheard talk of “spending the summer in Marin.”
                              we haven’t been anywhere in so long. It must be
                                                        our own fault. The inability to manifest
                              our destiny, crack open that elusive money-chakra…
                        Coyote might be the problem. You once said
                                    “be lean like Coyote” and the bastard must have overheard.
                        Then everything went awry: capital on our trail: debt and debt;
                                                                             one step forward, two steps back.
                        Or maybe everything went right according to plan.
                                                                                         We are learning to serve. 

                                    (I’m not bitter. I’m here because of a blown tire.)


                        It’s blessedly air-conditioned in here: rice from California,
                                     cherries from Chile, flowers from Honduras. Everything
                                                                        fresh, ripe, bright.
                        I can feel The Invisible-Hand-of-the-Market reach into my pants.

                        What holds this building up? Who mined the copper?
                                                                                         Who picked the peppers?
                        A cheap tire costs less than one week’s grocery run?
                                         Everything has been stolen from something or someone.


                        It hasn’t rained in so long.
                                 Walking here I mistook the sound of wind for water. I dream
                        of standing under twisted elms, or in strange doorways,
                                                              listening to water gush down empty streets
                        in a language I suddenly know how to speak. It’s time
                                                to steal our life back. It’s time to turn our bed
                                     into a riverbank den; rodent bones strewn across the sheets.


This poem was previously published in 42opus under the title:
"For Michaela, Who Can't Stand Work Anymore."
It is also in my latest book:
All the Beautiful Dead.
You can find it at Small Press Distribution

If you have no money - and who does? -
ask your library to order one.
It's simple.
It's fun.
It's also the American Way.
All hail the free libraries of America!


There's also a bitter series I wrote on retail work and the service economy that you can find
Yeah, it'd be more fun to watch "Dark Matter" or "Braindead"
(I love those shows!),
but you never know,
it might be interesting...

CWA strike against Verizon/April 15, 2016


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