A Labor History Lesson about the Balance of Power – from Death in the Haymarket
So, do we need labor unions? The venom in the eyes of some at the very words indicate that, among some, labor unions are despised. But, in my reading for the Urban Engagement Book Club, I keep learning more and more about the history of these unions, and the problems that created them.
I just finished reading Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America by James Green, which I will present at today’s Urban Engagement Book Club for CitySquare. The book thoroughly chronicles the story of the Haymarket Riot, the 1886 bloodbath in Chicago. The specific issue was the workday, but the real issue was the overall treatment of workers. The “owners” had long demanded that their workers work from sun-up to sun-down. The workers would march, strike, agitate for the eight-hour work day. And the multi-year struggle resulted in violence, death, some hangings (of men who were not guilty of throwing the bomb on that fateful day)…
But, here is what I think I have learned/am learning in all of my reading over the last few years.
In his masterful and timeless Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
And because all rights must be demanded (do any of us remember that the very birth of our country was just such a demanding of our rights?), there will be conflict, opposition, pain…
And, when one group is not given rights by another, there are always those who need more rights, and those who resist giving such rights. Always.
In the world of work, it is the “owners’ and the “laborers.” And if we do not stay vigilant, then owners will exploit the workers again, and again.
Are workers innocent in all of this? No, of course not. Have unions overreached at times? Yes – many times. But have owners ever overreached? The answer is rather obvious.
One cursory reading of the cause that took Dr. King to Memphis in 1968, which was his last trip, reminds us of the sad reality that some peoples are favored over others, some are treated better than others, and those in charge will take advantage of, and at times actually abuse, those who work under their charge. In case you do not remember, he was in Memphis because injustice was there. He was there in support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers. (read more about this here). Here is what prompted his visit:
During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers had been crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay.
In Death in the Haymarket, Mr. Green says this:
The execution of Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel (the four men hanged after the riot) came to be seen by many people in the United States and overseas not as a victory of democracy over anarchy, but as a travesty that betrayed the American ideal of liberty and justice for all. It is impossible to say exactly what might have been different if the police hadn’t killed those strikers at McCormick’s, if the chief inspector hadn’t decided to break up the Haymarket meeting, if someone hadn’t thrown the bomb, but it is clear that, in some sense, we are today living with the legacy of those long-ago events.
And in the book, he made this observation:
…the call for the “eight-hour system” seemed to employers less like a proposal for reform and more like a demand for radical change in the political balance of power.
It is that balance of power that is always hanging in the balance.
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