Activism: The Backstory

speakyourmindPinned because it’s labor day.

Activism isn’t a new thing. It’s what has made the United States the great country it is rather than a hell-hole run by and for the worst examples of humanity any of us can imagine.

In my mind there are three crucial instances where activism caused radical change in America. Change for the better by almost all accounts.

  • The Haymarket Affair
  • Child Labor
  • The Triangle Shirtwaiste Fire
  1. The Haymarket Affair. Most of us are at least passingly familiar with the event.


On Saturday, May 1, 1886, a nationwide general strike in support of the eight-hour day was observed. In Chicago alone, 60,000 workers walked off their jobs. In a truly prescient headline, a Chicago labor newspaper that day announced: “The Dies Are Cast! The First of May, Whose Historical Significance Will Be Understood and Appreciated Only in Later Years, Is Here!” The general strike for the eight-hour day continued on Monday, May 3. On the afternoon of May 3, August Spies was addressing a rally of striking workers that had been locked out of the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, when hundreds of police officers simply began shooting into the crowd of workers. Several workers died, and many others were wounded. That night, Parsons, Spies, and other anarchists printed leaflets calling for a labor rally the next afternoon in Haymarket Square to protest the massacre of unarmed strikers by police at the McCormick plant.

The labor demonstration in Haymarket Square in the afternoon of Tuesday, May 4, 1886, was peaceful until the very end. Parsons spoke to the group and then left the rally to meet his family at a nearby labor hall. Spies spoke at the rally, urging peaceful action to protest the massacre of the previous day and to support the cause of the eight-hour day. Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison attended and reported to the police that the demonstration was “tame” (Harrison’s word) and peaceful. But near the end of the rally, an unknown person threw a bomb into the phalanx of police officers attending the rally. In response, the police officers attacked the unarmed laborers. Hundreds of police officers fired into the terrified, fleeing crowd. An unknown number of people were killed and many others were wounded. Many police officers were wounded, some seriously, by gunfire. Every such wounded police officer – every one! – had been shot by other police officers. In the bloody police riot that followed the bombing, police officers shot wildly and at random; labor protesters and police officers alike were shot down.

Eight workers were tried and convicted. Five died for the crime of wanting an eight hour work day. Four were hung with short ropes; it took a long time for them to die. One died in jail the night before officially “by his own hand.” A blasting cap had been shoved up his nose and ignited, by the police. And I’m pretty sure it was just the coup de gras after a very, very long night. (Dying in jail is not a new thing, nor is it only black people who die mysteriously. It is a fact that it happens to black people far, far more frequently than to white people.)

2. Child Labor

From the Snohomish County Labor Council

Exploited without regard to their tender years, countless youngsters were working under conditions constantly fraught with danger to life and limb. Accidents occurred among them about three times as often as among adult workers. Many of those lucky enough to escape mortal injury sustained crippling disabilities and telltale scars for the rest of their lives.

The blight of child labor was widely prevalent, in dust-laden textile mills and pitch-black coal mines, in sweltering glass factories and fetid sweat-shop lofts, in filthy canneries and blazing hot tobacco fields. No industry, no region was without its “tiny hostages to rapacious capitalism.”

Got that? No industry, no region was without its “tiny hostages to rapacious capitalism.”

3. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

From Cornell University

NEAR CLOSING TIME ON MARCH 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Factory in New York City. Within 18 minutes, 146 people were dead as a result
of the fire.

Eighteen minutes from start to finish. The Fire Departments ladders could only reach the sixth floor. All the doors were locked. Thirty people leapt to their deaths from the windows of the tenth floor rather than be burned to death. People on the street watched in horror, there was nothing anyone could do to help them.

On December 27, Judge Crain read to the jury the text of Article 6, Section 80, of New York’s Labor Law: “All doors leading in or to any such factory shall be so constructed as to open outwardly where practicable, and shall not be locked, bolted, or fastened during working hours.” Crain told the jury that in order to return a verdict of guilty they must first find that door was locked during the fire–and that the defendants knew or should have known it was locked. The judge also told the jury that they must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the locked door caused the death of Margaret Schwartz.

After deliberating for just under two hours, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. After the verdict, one juror, Victor Steinman declared, “I believed that the door was locked at the time of the fire, but we couldn’t find them guilty unless we believed they knew the door was locked.”

Surrounded by five policemen, Blanck and Harris hurried through the judge’s private exit to Leonard Street. Those in the crowd that saw the men yelled, “Justice! Where is justice!” The defendants ran to the nearest subway station, the crowd in pursuit.

In March 1912, Bostwick attempted to prosecute Blanck and Harris again, this time for the manslaughter death of another fire victim, Jake Kline. However, Judge Samuel Seabury instructed the jury that the men were being “tried for the same offense, and under our Constitution and laws, this cannot be done.” He told the jury to “find a verdict for the defendants.”

Three years after the fire, on March 11, 1914, twenty-three individual civil suits against the owner of the Asch Building were settled. The average recovery was $75 per life lost.

The owners soon went back into business, running another sweatshop.

When I ask people to make calls I remember these men, women and children who suffered and died. I’m pretty sure they all would rather have made phone calls.

Fight back.


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8 Responses to Activism: The Backstory

  1. Sirius Lunacy says:

    While you’re making phone calls, may I suggest you drop a line to the History Channel as well. I know they hardly ever do history any more, but they seem to manage to find something for Memorial Day and Veteran’s day. (YAY War!) But today, as they have for the last several years, we have an American Pickers marathon. Every year I remind them that there are plenty of good movies and documentaries out there that would be far more appropriate.


  2. Pingback: Labor Day 2017 | Mock Paper Scissors

  3. HarpoSnarx says:

    Would anyone be shocked to learn in a later Blanck and Harris sweatshop, inspectors found they still had the exit doors LOCKED. What’s a few dead immigrant girls to step over.


  4. regarding the Haymarket Affair

    In a review of Dave Eggers The Circle, published in NYRB, Margaret Atwood wrote:

    >>The Circle takes its name most immediately from a fictional West Coast social media corporation that has subsumed all earlier iterations such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It traces the rise and rise within this company of its female protagonist, Maebelline, a name that closely resembles that of a brand of mascara, thus hinting at masks and acting. (Names matter in The Circle because they matter both to its author and to its characters, some of whom go so far as to pick out new ones for themselves from the Internet.) Maebelline is commonly called “Mae,” and this nickname is then expanded by a coworker who’s bringing Mae up to speed on her Circle duties. She’s opened a “Zing” account for Mae—zinging being an amalgamation of tweeting, texting, and pinging.

    “I made up a name for you,” says Gina.

    “MaeDay. Like the war holiday. Isn’t that cool?”

    Mae wasn’t so sure about the name, and couldn’t remember a holiday by that name.

    Clever Mr. Eggers. There is no real war holiday called MaeDay, but “Mayday”—from the French m’aidez—is a venerable distress signal. May Day was once a pagan springtime celebration, but was adopted in the nineteenth century as a workers’ holiday. It was then appropriated for military parades during Stalinism, a period noted for its hyperactive secret police, and satirized in Orwell’s 1984, a work that is echoed more than once in The Circle.<<

    I wrote to the NYRB:

    I slightly disagree with Ms. Atwood on a point that may seem minor, but might have momentous consequences if seen in context. May Day IS, in fact, a Real War Holiday – it commemorates a once-notorious battle between labor and capital – a battle whose current obscurity shows who is winning that war. Useful search terms include “International Workers Day” or “Haymarket Affair in Chicago.”

    Nevertheless, one could plausibly claim that the victory of the military industrial congressional financial corporate media complex – the MICFiC – is not yet final. The people, if united, might yet rise from defeat. To speak in twentieth-century terms, they need consciousness-raising. Like Margaret Atwood's own writing, let's hope this book of Dave Eggers may be not just entertaining, and thought-provoking, but enlightening – maybe even a Brave New Web World.

    [end of text of letter to NYRB]


  5. w3ski4me says:

    Thank you for sharing that. As a ‘once’ laborer, I sit here retired, on Labor Day. I have so much respect for those that went before. That to me is the idea of “make America Great”. Damn the ‘resident’ and his minions, Labor made and Makes this country Great, every single day.
    In Respect


  6. Sirius Lunacy says:

    A song written in the memory of the Battle of Orgreave
    (Sorry, it’s been a while and I’ve forgotten how to embed the link into the text)


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