Today’s Labor Day. For a lot of people this means a three day weekend and a sale on beer at the grocery store. It’s a little more meaningful to me, and it bugs the hell out of me that this holiday isn’t given more respect. LET ME TELL YOU WHY
Way way waaay back in the days of the Industrial Revolution, conditions for laborers and ‘unskilled’ (I HATE that term, it implies that workers are stupid) workers were abhorrent. They were overworked and underpaid – and not in the sense you or I have even the slightest capability of comprehending these days, try 16-20 hour days for pennies an hour, just enough money to keep them from starving to death TOO quickly. Workplace safety was a joke, indentured servitude was barely considered questionable, and as long as a child was old enough to follow basic instructions, they were put to work. If a laborer complained of the poor conditions and frequent hazards, they were laughed off and fired at the best or beaten (or occasionally murdered) at the worst. Some workers weren’t even paid in actual money, they were paid in ‘company scrip’ which was only usable at the company store.
This system worked GREAT for the owners and management of the factories and whatnot (the ‘bosses’) but obviously pretty crappy for the laborers. It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice for that system to change to something a little more equal (though we’re not 100% there yet, sadly), and Labor Day is meant to honor those who gave so much so you and I could enjoy a more fair workplace today.
I want to stress a word from that last paragraph. Sacrifice. I’m not talking about just taking time out for long meetings or having to go without cable TV for a few months. Big Bill Haywood, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, was one of 165 union leaders arrested in September 1917 and convicted under a shaky interpretation of the Espionage Act. He fled the country he had fought so hard to protect and died in exile in the Soviet Union in 1928.
Wesley Everest, also a member of the IWW and an US Army veteran from World War I who was captured in the same raids that captured Big Bill, was turned over to a lynch mob by prison guards. The mob (largely composed of paid agents of the businesses that lost profits by no longer being able to exploit their workers thanks to the union’s efforts) smashed his teeth out with a rifle butt, cut out his genitals, hanged three different times in three different places (thankfully, he died at this step), where his body was beaten some more, shot to pieces, and generally abused in any way you care to think of. The report from the coroner’s office ruled his death as a suicide.
Countless other union leaders, community organizers, and other people trying to make life better for working men and women were threatened, beaten, and brutally murdered for their efforts. Joe Hill was executed by the state of Utah based on only circumstantial evidence on a murder trial. At least five were murdered by a mob of angry businessmen led by Sheriff Donald McRae. Seventy-five survivors of the Everett Massacre were charged with murder for two citizen deputies (local businessmen who took part in the slaughter) who might well have been shot accidentally by other deputies or gunmen hired by Sheriff McRae. After a two-month trial that could not satisfy even the laughable standards of justice set by the corrupt local law enforcement agencies, IWW leader Thomas Tracy was acquitted by the jury and the remaining defendants had their charges dropped.
These stories seem almost like comic book plots these days – too fantastic and unreal to be believed. However, these were not the exception during the dawn of organized labor, events like these were the rule. If you stepped up to prevent business owners from making profits by exploiting the poor and literally raping and murdering anyone who stood in their way, you would be beaten and murdered either by the police or by private agencies (The Pinkerton Detective Agency was heavily involved in several union-related clashes) – and then sent to prison if you somehow survived.
These days, there are laws that protect workers. The reason we have those laws is because men like Haywood and Tracy and Everest and Hill stood up and said NO, we will not be exploited, NO we will not be silenced, NO we will not be complacent. They gave us the protections and freedoms we enjoy today, and they paid for it with their livelihoods, their honor, and their blood.
It is partly to honor their brave sacrifices, and partly for my own political reasons, that I maintain a membership in the IWW. Although our numbers have shrank, and the stakes for our battles are much lower (certainly nobody is using hired goons to shoot up picket lines anymore!), the spirit is the same. Anywhere there are workers, there will also be the IWW – membership in the union is not limited to any one industry, it does not preclude membership in any other union or organization. Dues are minimal and based on income – if you don’t make a lot, you don’t pay a lot. It’s a small price to pay to help keep the fight for worker’s rights going.
I urge you, whoever is reading this, to do your part. Consider joining a union, either the IWW or a trade-specific union that might be available to you. If not that, then at least read up on what your rights are – the rights of the workers are only guaranteed if they are known. If you are being treated unfairly at your place of work, SPEAK UP. If your employer is exploiting workers, SPEAK UP. If there are businesses in your area that exploit workers, SPEAK UP. Sunlight is the best disinfectant – exploitative business practices persist because many people think it’s someone else’s job to say something about it. It’s EVERYONE’S job.
Have a happy Labor Day. Remember who it’s meant to honor.