Although there have been labor actions for as long as we’ve been a country, the roots of the modern labor movement as we now know it go back to the 1870s, during the “Gilded Age.” It was a time of rapid technological change, expanding industry, and saw the making of great fortunes (names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie come to mind). Working class people, however, fell behind. The gap between rich and poor –which, of course, had always been there –widened significantly. Farmers, railroad workers, factory workers, and so on felt that they were being treated unfairly and started calling for more rights. A forty-hour workweek, for example, as well as safety regulations for the workplace and compensation when injured on the job. Some successful entrepreneurs –called “robber barons” by people who didn’t like them –justified the rampant economic inequality by adopting some of the ideas Charles Darwin had introduced, especially “survival of the fittest,” in a philosophy called “social Darwinism.” This philosophy essentially stated that, if you’re poor, it’s because you are an inferior person –either lazy, incompetent, or morally deficient, with no consideration of circumstances. If you are rich, on the other hand, it is because you deserve to be –or you wouldn’t be rich to begin with. This viewpoint shows the contempt in which poor and working class people were held by those who prospered on their labor, and sadly it has been making a comeback in the 21st century.
In 1877 railroad workers went on strike after having a ten percent reduction in their wages, the third such cut in a year. Many workers were already frustrated that year because of the presidential election. Working class people around the country had voted in large numbers for Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York, who won the popular vote. Neither he nor Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of New York had an electoral majority –but Tilden was only one vote shy. Despite all that, in a Congressional move known in history as The Compromise of 1877, the victory was given to Rutherford in return for ending Reconstruction. Workers felt disenfranchised. Unfortunately, though the strike had heavy participation and support from workers in other industries, it was not efficiently organized and fell apart under the weight of violent union-busters (around 100 strikers were killed). This failure led to more emphasis on organizing, and the growth of groups like the Knights of Labor (which grew tenfold in two years) and the Farmer’s Alliance.
This brings us to May 1, 1886. Labor unions around the country coordinated to call a general strike on that day in support of an 8-hour workday. It is estimated that up to 500,000 workers walked off the job that day and joined protest parades. In some cities, the protests lasted for days. In Chicago, tensions escalated between protesting strikers and replacement workers at the McCormick Harvesting plant; 400 police were dispatched to keep order, and they wound up firing into the crowd of strikers and killing at least two. Strike supporters were outraged, and immediately another protest was called for the next day –this one a protest against police violence, to be held at Haymarket Square. One of the principal organizers was a man named Albert Parsons.
Albert Parsons was from Alabama. Orphaned at a young age, he had moved to Texas to be raised by an older brother in the newspaper business. When the Civil War started, 13-year-old Albert joined the Confederate Army. He initially served as a “powder monkey,” a common job for young teens, but by the end of the war four years later he was in the cavalry and the veteran of many battles. After the war, he continued in his brother’s newspaper trade, eventually becoming a reporter and an editor. He came to openly support the struggles of freed slaves, who were terribly mistreated in general, which did not make him popular in Reconstruction Texas. He became even more unpopular when he went from supporting ex-slaves to marrying one: a multiracial woman named Lucy Gonzales. In the early 1870s, Albert and Lucy moved to Chicago, where he continued to work in newspapers. However, after writing an editorial in support of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 while it was going on, Albert was fired from his reporting job. He left the Republican Party and joined the Social Democratic Party, and after a few years moved farther left than that and became an anarchist. Anarchist is another of those terms that most people today misunderstand, thinking it means “someone who wants to sow chaos.” The word anarchy literally means “without government,” and as a political ideal it calls for absolute freedom of the individual. If there were no government imposing authority, anarchists say, everyone would get along better and be more free. An anarchist, then, in the classic sense, is basically a libertarian on steroids.
Parsons and several other anarchists either in or closely aligned with the labor movement called for and organized the Haymarket Square rally on May 4, 1886. There was a large police presence, but at first everything was pretty peaceful, even boring. It started raining, and several protesters went home. Albert and Lucy Parsons, who had brought their children to the event, were among those who left. Later in the day, though, a match was metaphorically (and in a sense literally) struck on the powder keg. The police advanced on the protesters and ordered them to disperse; the workers insisted that they were being peaceful and had done nothing wrong. As the police drew closer, someone in the crowd threw a homemade bomb at them, and seven officers were killed. The other officers opened fire on the crowd, killing four. As is often the case, each side blamed the other for starting the violence.
To this day, no one knows who threw the bomb. The Chicago city government, though, decreed that someone had to pay. They arrested the people who organized the rally on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. Seven anarchists, including Albert Parsons (who had not even been present) were sentenced to death, and an eighth to prison. Two of the five had their sentences commuted to life, and one of the remaining five committed suicide, but Parsons and the other three were hanged on a public scaffold despite appeals from around the world. On the way to the scaffold they sang the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem and a call for revolution against corruption. Parsons asked to be allowed a final statement, and the trapdoor was sprung on him mid-sentence. Lucy Parsons remained a labor activist for the rest of her life, and went on to be a co-founder of International Workers of the World.
The U.S. adopted Labor Day in 1894, but President Grover Cleveland did not want it to be May 1 like everyone else because it would draw attention to the Haymarket event (which was by then already a national embarrassment) and embolden anarchists. Instead, May 1 is “Law Day” and “Loyalty Day.”
Most of the reforms they were protesting for eventually came to pass. If you’ve ever been paid overtime or worker’s compensation, never forget what it took to get you there.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.