Pinned 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
- 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.