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The Ongoing Fight for Workers' Rights

Rebekah Buchanan

It's May. It took a long time getting here, but we're reaching the end of the school year and the beginning of summer. It's time for baseball, cookouts, vacation, and fishing. Macomb's Dairy Queen is open and people are placing bets on whether or not the pool will open. Tuesday I walked with my daughter's second grade class to the West Central Illinois Arts Center and Chandler Park and it finally felt like we've put the cold and snow behind us.

Tuesday was May 1st. For centuries May Day has been celebrated around the world. At first, May Day was seen as the first day of summer. It was a pagan holiday and festival celebrating the end of night and the beginning of summer. People would dance around the maypole and leave May Baskets—baskets of sweets or flowers—hanging on their neighbors’ doors.

May Day was a time to celebrate growth and fertility. It was a time for communities to come together and celebrate the start of a new season.

In the late 1800’s May Day took on a new meaning. Now it is known as International Workers’ Day which came about as a way to honor workers who fought for better working conditions.

Recently, I saw that someone had written that workers have two choices—to work or not work. And, that if workers determined salaries and work environments, little would get done. When I read this I was saddened by the lack of knowledge of our history this person had and the lack of respect for workers and those who came before her.

After the Civil War, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, poor working conditions, long hours, and child labor lead to the deaths of thousands of children, women, and men on the job each year. Labor Unions came together to work to end these conditions and stop these deaths.

The call for the eight-hour work day came with a proclamation on May 1, 1886. On this day, more that 300,000 workers from 13,000 businesses across the United States walked out of their jobs. Workers came together with strikes and rallies all over the United States. They were not asking for this because they did not want to work. Instead, they were asking for conditions that were not hazardous to their health and livelihood.

Most of rallies and strikes were peaceful but on May 3rd in Chicago two workers were killed by police and a rally against police violence was quickly called for the following day. On May 4th, a large crowd gathered in Haymarket Square where speeches were given. As the event was ending, police came to break up the meeting and a homemade bomb was thrown into the crowd.

In the events that transpired there were gunshots and fighting and within 5 minutes the Square was cleared. All that was left were the seven police officers and four workers who were killed as well as some of the wounded.

Communities came together supporting and funding the police, and anti-union rhetoric was rampant. Police raided the homes of immigrants and more radical organizers known as anarchists, who were blamed for the “riot.” Although they could not prove who threw the bomb, police arrested eight anarchists who were found guilty in August of 1886. One of the men committed suicide and four were hanged. In all of this, no bomber was ever arrested and no one found evidence that any of these men were linked in any way to the bombing.

Many prominent supporters argued that the trial was unfair and publically condemned it. In 1893, the three men who were still living were pardoned by the Governor based on his findings of a biased judge, hysteria, and the fact that there is no evidence that any of the accused made or threw the bomb.

Since this time, May Day has become a symbol for workers. In many countries, it is a national holiday to celebrate workers and workers’ rights.  The Catholic Church even dedicated May 1st to Saint Joseph, the patron saint of workers and craftsmen.

May Day is an important part of our labor history. It is not true that workers only have two choices—to work or not to work. Workers have the right to work with dignity, safety, and respect. It is difficult for some to remember how risky most work was in the United States just 100 years ago. And, for some to acknowledge that for certain workers it still is.

Right now, there are a number of teachers striking across the United States. Teachers in Oklahoma marched 110-miles from Tulsa to Oklahoma City as public school teachers in the state called for educational funding. Teachers in Kentucky are demanding that a bill that gutted their pension benefits be reversed. Every school in that state was closed as teachers went to their state Capitol to call for school funding.

We call for teachers and workers to “do their jobs” and yet we do not show respect for those jobs. Instead, we blame the workers for wanting too much. We want them to do more work for less pay. How is it that we call ourselves the richest country in the world, but workers are still fighting for a decent wage and to not have to work two or even three jobs to make ends meet?

As you listen to this commentary 122 years after the Haymarket Riots, start to remind yourself why you have the weekend off, the pension you have, the 40-hour work week, the time to go to and afford a baseball game or a family barbeque. Remember that your 8-year-old is not working in a factory. And remember that this is because workers did not accept the notion that they had only two options: to work or not to work. Instead, workers demanded to be treated with respect and to be listened to. We benefit from their courage and sacrifices. And, it is important to continue this fight, because I want our children to have more opportunities than I do now.

Rebekah Buchanan is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.