May Day 2010


Brush Up on Your Knowledge of Union History

What is May Day?

Each year, many nations around the world honor May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day. The date is respected in the United States as the anniversary of an historic undertaking for workers’ rights. On May 1, 1886 hundreds of thousands of workers paraded through the streets of Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and other American Cities demanding the eight-hour workday. in many cases, despite municipal laws, many employers continued to exact long workdays from their employees. On May 1, workers achieved their hard-fought eight-hour workday.

In subsequent years, May 1 became the day labor unions and other groups would organize public demonstrations to solidify their right to shorter hours. In 1890, the American Federation of Labor reached overseas to Europe to spread workers’ rights; May Day had become an internationally recognized opportunity for direct action. This tradition of activism continued in the United States until 1953 when tens of thousands of May Day participants were denied their usual permit to march. In the United States, this date has since dwindled into relative obscurity.

The Pullman Strike

In July of 1894, south of Chicago on an orderly three thousand acre track of land, Pullman Illinois erupted in a violent clash between railroad workers, industry, and government. The previous May, three thousand workers from the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike to protest a wage reduction. By June, the American Railway Union brought the conflict to the national scene by virtually halting railway transit west of Chicago.

Within days, federal soldiers were dispatched to break the strike. This decision by President Cleveland resulted in intensified violence. Unions of workers and alliances between owners had evolved before this conflict. George Pullman had a city designed to provide for all of the needs of his employees. In response to the financial panic of 1893, Pullman authorized a wage cut of 25% without reducing his workers’ cost of living. Owners and laborers both took a stand. The Pullman conflict provided the spark to initiate the general strike, which shook the country perhaps more than any other single labor dispute in American history.

Radical Unions

The Knights of Labor

(KOL) was first established in 1869 by textile workers in Philadelphia. In 1886, The KoL grew to contain over 700,000 members including blacks and women. The organization did not participate in the protests of May 1, 1986; However, many local branches did take part. The KoL was obligated to operate as a radical union from its inception. The founding coincided with the dissolution of the Garment Cutters’ Union. Many members had been blacklisted but determined to found the Knights of Labor as a secret organization.

These leaders expanded the Union’s influence by welcoming people from different industries, genders, and races into the organization. This was a radical decision for the time and a huge step for inclusivity. (Unfortunately, the KoL continued to exclude and antagonize Asian workers.) With its diverse membership, the KoL sought to achieve the eight-hour workday, the elimination of child labor, and equal pay for equal work among other pursuits.

After many successes in the early 1980s, subsequent strike failures, refusal to participate in the successful May Day demonstration, and competition with the newly established American Federation of Labor, the influence of the KoL had largely disappeared by 1900.

The Industrial Workers of the World

(IWW), established in 1905, took some of the most drastic and effective methods of any labor organization to that time. By 1917, many states enacted laws to pacify many IWW initiatives. The IWW was quick to declare strikes, boycotts, and slowdowns. It often employed direct action, thereby sacrificing many chances for comprise. Members were drawn from all working class people including immigrants, women, minorities and the unemployed. The IWW became the most Inclusive union on the national stage.

The IWW states in its constitution: “Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.” Its zealous pursuit of these goals lasted into the 1920s During World War I, the IWW never ceased its activities. Many members were arrested for evading the draft and others were falsely accused of cooperating with German agents. Many of the organizations’ leaders were arrested under provisions of the Espionage Act. This included the founder William Haywood, who skipped bail to flee to Russia, leaving the IWW with a massive debt. In the mid-1920s membership had dropped off and the IWW’s influence had greatly diminished. The organization has survived and continues to organize labor actions today.

Modern Union Strategies

Trade Unions, Industrial Unionism & Service Unionism

Trade unions accept members based on their individual occupation or trade. Commonly, workers in the same craft and in the same union will be employed by many different industries and by many different employers. Trade unions have much in common with guilds, which have existed since medieval times.

Industrial unions were designed to incorporate all workers from a given industry. Often this form of union is referred to as a vertical union since it consists of the least skilled workers to the most specialized workers. Prior to the Knights of Labor, unions had been organized as trade unions. The American Federation of Labor that largely supplanted the Knights of Labor accepted all workers, but continued to organize them on the basis of their trade. The Industrial Workers of the World was the next genuine large industrial union.

As the size of the service economy has grown, service unionism has been used to operate in specific localities rather than in specific industries and for specific trades. Closely coordinated activism among participants in a strike prevent counterstrokes from employers and avoids targeting single shops which sometimes merely close down rather than directly oppose a strike. By targeting an entire region, the people from the collective area can more forcefully demand better wages, hours and benefits.