As we gather with friends and family this long weekend, celebrating the remaining summer days, it’s important to reflect on the laborers who struggled for better working conditions, treatment and livable wages.
At the height of the industrial revolution, laborers were working 12 hours a day seven days a week just to eke out a living. Children were not spared, toiling in mills, factories and mines. Throughout all industries, laborers called for shorter work days, better conditions and fair wages. Protests and riots were frequent.
The Haymarket Riot. May 4, 1886, in Chicago Illinois, turned deadly after a bomb was thrown at police officers. Labor organizers and perceived radicals were rounded up by law enforcement across the nation following the riot. In Chicago, eight men were convicted of throwing the bomb. No evidence was presented at the trial actually linking them to the crime. Seven of those men were sentenced to death and four of them were hanged. They were not the only ones executed during the effort to crack down on the labor movement.
The movement persisted, however, and in 1894, President Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day an official national holiday. That was not the end for those advocating for workers’ rights, however.
The barely five-foot tall Mary Harris Jones, also known as Mother Jones, was a fearless fighter for workers’ rights. Once labeled “the most dangerous woman in America,” Jones was a fiery orator and feisty organizer for the Mine Workers during the early 1900s. Her energy and passion inspired men half her age into action and compelled their wives and daughters to join the struggle. She organized the wives into teams armed with mops and brooms to guard the mines against “scabs” and welcomed African Americans, methods that were unique for her time. Jones wasn’t above embarrassing men to action if need be. “I have been in jail more than once and I expect to go again. If you are too cowardly to fight, I will fight,” she said.
More well known for his civil rights activism, Frederick Douglass was also a champion of workers’ rights.
Douglass was president of the Colored National Labor Union, a union that advocated for equal representation of African Americans in the workplace. Most prominent unions at the time did not allow Black delegates, let alone address matters of discrimination.
During an 1882 speech, Douglass said, “I have no sympathy for the narrow, selfish notion of economy which assumes that every crumb of bread which goes into the mouths of one class is so much taken from the mouths of another class.”
The dedication of Douglass and the founders of the CNLU paved the way for upcoming pioneers of the Black Labor Movement.
The Washerwomen of Jackson became the first union in Mississippi in 1866. This group of Black laundry workers was paid very low wages for their backbreaking work. They needed to earn enough to support their families. The washerwomen understood white households depended on their services and knew if they stood together they could secure fair wages for themselves and every laundry worker in Jackson.
The Jackson laundry workers met to discuss the situation. After the meeting, they wrote this letter to the mayor of Jackson, outlining their complaints and demands. The letter was printed in the Jackson Daily Clarion newspaper. It called the strike “ill-timed, unfortunate, and calculated to injure instead of bettering their condition.” While there is no surviving record verifying the outcome of the strike, these remarkable women inspired laundry workers across the United States to unite in their fight for better wages.
There were also Chinese railway workers who risked their lives constructing the transcontinental railroad in 1865-1869. Many died as a result of the harsh winters and dangerous working conditions. These immigrants faced prejudice, low wages and social isolation. Despite these challenges, the railway workers courageously took a stand to organize for fairer wages and safer working conditions. Their efforts not only connected the east and west coasts by rail, but advanced the cause of good, safe jobs for all workers.
One hundred and twenty-eight years after Labor Day became a national holiday, calls for better working conditions and livable wages continue. The pandemic only crystallized our labor crisis and made it clear these issues need to be addressed once and for all.