Magazine article Monthly Review

What Goes around Comes Around

Magazine article Monthly Review

What Goes around Comes Around

Article excerpt

When I was asked to write on the history of May Day, I took a big gulp. Having never been taught about May Day in either school or college, I had to do some reading. Oh, I knew the basic one sentence, isn't that when they hung those guys in Chicago for throwing a bomb? Clearly that wouldn't be enough of a speech, nor is it in fact the real story. So after all my digging, I'm going to start with my conclusion: as the old saying goes, "What goes around comes around."

May Day, the left-wing version of Labor Day, has its roots in 1880's in the demand for shorter work days. The parallels between the events of 1886 and today are both startling and unnerving. The country was undergoing profound economic change as the Second Industrial Revolution took hold. In a ten year period between 1880 and 1890 capital investment in manufacturing grew threefold. The death of small-business capitalism was giving way to trusts, mergers, and monopolies. Steel production went from half of England and France's to outstrip them both and provide a third of the total steel production in the world. The workforce grew dramatically, from 2.7 million to 5.9 million. This was the period when those huge factories sometimes employing 10 thousand or more workers were built.

It was the Gilded Age and robber baron capitalism. While the rich lived in splendor (ever been through their castles in Newport, Rhode Island?), things were terrible for the vast majority of working people (railroad and food workers, factory hands, miners, textile, clothing and shoe workers, clerks). The trusts, the monopolists, and the wealthy justified their position through social Darwinism. This was an ideology particularly suited to the robber barons' needs. Much like today's right-wing ideology, it held that "Poverty is only a proof of indolence and vice. Wealth simply shows the industry and virtue of the possessor." No need to be concerned about the poverty of the vast majority, it was their fault.

The country was just showing signs of recovering from the financial crisis of the 1870's which had touched off such widespread riots and strikes that it became known as the Great Uprising. Nine years later unemployment still hovered around 20 percent. Wages, which had declined 15 percent from 18821886 alone, were finally beginning to stabilize. The average workweek was six days, twelve to sixteen hours a day. Child labor and company stores, especially in the South, were common. Working conditions were horrendous (mind you, the Triangle Shirt Factory was still in the future). Injury rates were rising. Boycotts, the main weapon of the working class, were only slightly more successful than strikes. Lockouts, scabs, company militias, blacklisting, and "yellow dog" contracts (I promise not to join a union if you promise to hire me) were common. Although unions were still illegal and subject to conspiracy charges, business was rapidly turning to the injunction because increasingly juries weren't returning guilty verdicts. Things were better left to friendly judges. As bad as things were in the workplace they were even worse at home. Rent gouging prevailed. The situation was, as Mother Jones said, one of "hunger, rags, and despair."

Many of the new workplaces were full of foreign-born workers. Incidentally, until immigration restriction laws were passed in 1924, about half of immigrants returned to their country of origin, just staying long enough to make some money. But back to our story. Those that were coming to this country in the mid-1880s were often met at the boats by Day Labor Pools and employment agencies. Unknowingly their first job was more than likely to be a scab. Sometimes, especially when strikers could explain to these workers what was going on, they would walk off the job. Many times they joined the picket line. But usually, these workers just went from one scab situation to another.

Working people weren't completely defenseless, however. Although the repression following the Great Uprising had devastated the labor movement, the movement was hanging on and starting to regroup. …

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