Americans have a long history of throwing off the yoke of oppression, and we have always glorified the violence necessary to do so when it fit the narrative of the rich and powerful.
By David Todd McCarty | Friday, September 4, 2020
That hot dog you’re holding this weekend comes courtesy of organized Labor’s response to racism, greed, xenophobia, cruelty and oppression that ushered in the eight-hour workday and the concept of the weekend. The thing that gives that Labor Day hot dog its bite, is not the spicy mustard, but the blood, sweat and tears that were shed by millions of workers in their fight for basic dignity. Those poor souls who endured horrific conditions and paltry pay, in order to build the infrastructure of this nation. The immigrants who contributed mightily to the profound wealth of a small minority of this country’s elite that would become our new aristocracy. The new boss, same as the old boss.
It is because of their hardscrabble fight that you have the standard eight-hour work day, any chance at all of working in relatively safe conditions, and the once unthinkably frivolous privilege of the weekend off. Labor Day itself was a holiday born out of an attempt to repair ties with rioting American workers. After years of debilitating strikes, brutal crackdowns and violent uprisings, business leaders finally realized that if they didn’t mollify the working class, they would never get anything done. Not to mention the very real fear that they would one day be strung up from a nearby light post, their homes and factories burned to the ground, over the deplorable working conditions they were using in order to exact their untold riches.
The Labor Movement of the late 19th century, was a ragtag collection of socialists, communists and anarchists from Europe who believed the capitalist system should be dismantled because it exploited workers. On May 4, 1886 in Haymarket Square in Chicago, 2000 workers filled the square, protesting appalling working conditions and as police arrived to break up the scene, someone threw a bomb at them, causing the police to open fire. Seven police officers an at least one civilian died. The event, which came to be known as the Haymarket Riot, set off a national wave of xenophobia, as foreign-born radicals were rounded up by police, including eight men accused of being anarchists, who were tried with no evidence linking them to the crime, and sentenced to hang. Four were hung, one died of suicide the night before, one was given fifteen years in prison and two others had their sentences later commuted.
On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. On June 26, the American Railroad Union, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break the Pullman strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, unleashing a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers.
In the wake of this massive unrest and in an attempt to repair ties with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.
The idea of a “workingman’s holiday,” celebrated on the first Monday in September, had already caught on in cities across America, and other states passed legislation recognizing it. Initially, it wasn’t anything close to a paid holiday, or even anything official. It was simply a day where no one went to work. They weren’t given the day off, they took it.
Meanwhile, here in Cape May County, Republican-Controlled Trump Country, we can’t be bothered to celebrate Labor Day, or recognize the efforts of the Labor movement in any meaningful way. Instead, the elected leaders of Middle Township, decided to commemorate this hallowed Federal holiday, not by celebrating the labor movement, but by engaging in a state-sponsored religious prayer meeting, partisan political speeches on the value of free speech, thoughts on freedom of the press by Al Campbell, retired Managing Editor of the local conservative media outlet The Herald, and for no earthy reason having anything to do with the labor movement or freedom of speech, a police honor-guard.
Republican Mayor Tim Donohue, who is a vocal Trump supporter, and a big booster of the many Republicans running for office, claimed that the event was not political in nature so equal time for dissenting opinion was not a factor. They didn’t feel any need to invite any Democrats, though they did include two Black women, one is a Republican teacher who was invited to speak on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving white women the right to vote, and the other a representative from the local chapter of the NAACP who read a poem she wrote titled, “She” and spoke about the reality of the Black experience in America.
“This is not a political event and the speakers have been ask to speak to the topic of free speech, not the 2020 election,” claimed Donohue. “The invited speakers are Middle Township residents and their duly elected representatives at the local, county, state and federal level. This is our standard practice for major public events in Middle Township. It just so happens that, at this time, all those elected officials are Republicans. The people voted and the current office holders the people elected have been invited to participate.”
The speeches were as predictable as they were forgettable. They contained ridiculous attacks on the Governor for allegedly violating their civil rights in the name of public safety. Reflections on freedom that focused on their right to discriminate, subjugate, exercise hate speech and arm themselves. They celebrated both the police and the military, but not the worker or the oppressed. They decried the leadership of the State, but took no responsibility for the failed leadership of the country. They criticized the civil unrest in our nation’s cities but failed to recognize the cause. They proclaimed, without a spec of irony, that this was not the American way, even as they recalled the nation’s violent revolution. This is a curious aspect of our nation’s identity that we frame our revolution as a pure act of selfless righteousness, and not a bloody fight for power.
It’s worth noting that America was founded by an elite group of wealthy, land owners who convinced the working class to violently overthrow the existing government in the name of liberty, all the while importing African slaves to work the land they were stealing from the natives. They didn’t question taxing the people, they simply wanted to change who was doing the taxing.
American history is littered with examples of violence and cruelty, war and unrest, almost always in order to benefit the rich and powerful, and always at the expense of the weak and the poor.
The Labor Movement was an attempt to balance those scales of justice, at least when it came to fair wages for a hard day’s work. A more level playing field for those who wished to have a bite of the American Dream they’d been promised. A more egalitarian outlook on the future of America.
But it is the very Ayn Rand Republicans who have convinced not only themselves, but the poor, undereducated whites of America, that those in power have no responsibility to anyone other than themselves. The Grand Old Party has set themselves up as the new oppressors of America; the pigs of George Orwell’s farm wearing pants and drinking brandy. Wealthy businessmen who seek to avoid taxes, eliminate government services, curtail interference in how they make their money, and protection for their interests. They are the new ruling class. One that has managed to convince the populace, much like they did in the late 18th century, that the empty promises of liberty and freedom, are what they will be given, if only they hand over their gold and silver.
Political parties in America are designed to acquire and hold power in the hands of the few. Labor Unions were established as an attempt to provide a counterweight to that extreme power, and more equitably distribute it among the masses so that more might benefit. This isn’t socialism or communism, it’s just a fair market.
We claim to value freedom, equality and democracy in America, but too many of our leaders believe that power should be held by them alone. No one in power truly values democracy, or wishes to be questioned. They have no desire to be considered your equal. They expect to be praised and thanked and handsomely rewarded, not criticized.
If Labor Day teaches us anything, it is that we will never receive our due by waiting and hoping for someone to give it to us, we must take it.
Because like it or not, that is the American way.