When I ask college students what they know about the origins of Labor Day, the answer is usually straightforward: not much. But if the labor movement’s story is not on the tip of their tongues, it says less about them than it does about our era. In recent decades, unions – weakened by plummeting enrollments and beset by powerful detractors – have struggled to steer public debate and even to determine the meaning of their own signal holiday. Little wonder that, for countless Americans, Labor Day is more about end-of-summer barbecues and back-to-school sales than it is about capitalism and class politics.
This hasn’t always been the case. Consider the lively debates that animated Chicago’s inaugural Labor Day celebration in 1885:
- On Sunday, September 6th, organized labor’s most radical wing led a preemptive march through the city’s downtown and near north side. More than 5,000 persons participated in the anarchist and socialist-led demonstration, which included representatives from at least eleven different unions carrying banners with messages such as: “The greatest crime today is poverty!”; “Capital represents stolen labor”; and “Every government is a conspiracy of the rich against the people.” This large subset of the city’s rank-and-file had decided to boycott Monday’s festivities on the grounds that the red flag – radicalism’s most potent symbol – had been expressly banned, but this particular dispute was in fact symptomatic of much larger differences within labor’s camp. The anarchist Sam Fielden emphasized these in his remarks, declaring, “There is going to be a parade tomorrow. Those fellows want to reconcile labor and capital. They want to reconcile you to your starving shanties.”
- On Monday, September 7th, an “immense crowd” of onlookers gathered as thousands marched in the more mainstream Trade and Labor Assembly’s parade. They, too, carried banners, but these struck more moderate tones: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”; “We do not ask for charity, but simple justice”; and “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for recreation.” The procession wound its way to Ogden’s Grove, where a grand picnic commenced and a throng of 10,000 heard speeches from a variety of dignitaries, including Mayor Carter Harrison – this, despite the fact that some in the Assembly had protested Harrison’s inclusion “on the ground that he was a political hack that had no sympathy for the laboring man.” The crowd that day turned out to be mostly friendly and applauded vigorously when the mayor proclaimed, “Labor and capital may seem antagonistic, but they are in fact the best of friends. Make it friendly by organizing and teaching capital that its interest is to pull with you.”
- The arguments persisted long after the parade-goers returned home. The Chicago Daily Tribune decried the radical demonstration in an article entitled “Cutthroats of Society,” which began, “With the smell of gin and beer, with blood-red flags and redder noses, and with banners inscribed with revolutionary mottoes, the anarchists inaugurated their grand parade and picnic.” The Trade and Labor Assembly’s march received more favorable reviews from middle-class voices and was even outright celebrated by some. But anyone paying attention knew that respectable opinion could turn as rapidly on the trade unions as it did on the anarchists. Just two months before Labor Day, the police had violently subdued a streetcar workers’ strike. In the process they won the admiration of many middle-class Chicagoans, including one minister who used his pulpit to urge the authorities to maintain order, even if it required them “to mow down the crowds with artillery.”
These snapshots from Chicago’s first Labor Day suggest a crucial difference between the Gilded Age of the late-nineteenth century and the one we find ourselves in today. Even as contemporary disparities between rich and poor approach historic proportions, Americans today are not nearly as engaged in the kinds of freewheeling debates over the morality of capitalism that consumed many of those who lived through industrialization’s peak decades. In their world, devastating recessions elicited fundamental questions about the shape of the nation’s economic life. In their world, concerns about the experiences of the workers and the fate of the working classes saturated public conversation. It is a world removed from our own and yet one that – on Labor Day, no less – is well worth revisiting.
Featured image: “The Haymarket Riot” by Harper’s Weekly. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Post images from Anarchy and Anarchists: A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe. Communism, Socialism, and Nihilism in Doctrine and in Deed. The Chicago Haymarket Conspiracy, and the Detection and Trial of the Conspirators by Michael J. Schaack (1889). Public domain.