With the relentless, ongoing demonization of unions, it’s no surprise that labor history remains obscured and misrepresented and thus, not accessible as a lesson for today’s challenges.
With that in mind, we can choose to view Labor Day as nothing more than the symbolic end of summer and an excuse for more shopping…or we can use it as inspiration to reflect upon some of the brave souls who forged a path of justice and solidarity.
The Lowell Mill Girls
Lowell, Massachusetts was named after the wealthy Lowell family. They owned numerous textile mills, in which the workers were primarily the daughters of New England farmers. These young girls worked in the mills and lived in supervised dormitories. On average, a Lowell Mill Girl worked for three years before leaving to marry. Living and working together often forged a camaraderie that would later find an unexpected outlet.
What had the potential to become a relatively agreeable system for all involved was predictably exploited for mill owners’ gain. The young workers toiled under poor conditions for long hours only to return to dormitories that offered strict dress codes, lousy meals, and were ruled by matrons with an iron fist.
In response, the Lowell mill workers—some as young as eleven—did something revolutionary: the tight-knit group of girls and women organized a union. They marched and demonstrated against a 15 percent cut in their wages and for better conditions…including the institution of a ten-hour workday. They started newspapers. They proclaimed: “Union is power.” They went on strike.
As the movement spread through other Massachusetts mill towns, some 500 workers united to form the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) in 1844—the first organization of American working women to bargain collectively for better conditions and higher pay.
Sarah Bagley was named the LFLRA’s first president and she promptly led a petition-drive that forced the Massachusetts legislature to investigate conditions in the mills. Bagley not only fought to improve physical conditions, she argued that the female workers “lacked sufficient time to improve their minds,” something she considered “essential for laborers in a republic.”
As with many revolutionary notions, the LFLRA met much opposition in their efforts. Despite their inability to secure the specific changes they demanded, the Lowell Mill Girls laid a foundation for female involvement and leadership in the soon-to-explode American labor movement and must continue to inspire those who stand against injustice today.
Eugene V. Debs
This September 14 marks 96 years since Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for opposing U.S. entry into World War I. Debs was one of the most prominent labor organizers and political activists of his time. He was also nominated as the Socialist Party’s candidate for president five times. His voting tallies over his first four campaigns effectively illustrate the remarkable growth of the party during that volatile time period:
America’s entrance into World War I, however, provoked a tightening of civil liberties, culminating with the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918. This totalitarian salvo read in part: “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment of not more than 20 years, or both.”
Not long after the Espionage and Sedition Acts was voted into law, Debs was in Canton, Ohio for a Socialist Party convention. He was arrested for making a speech deemed “anti-war” by the Canton district attorney. In that speech, Debs declared:
“They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people … Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth.”
These words lead to a 10-year prison sentence and the stripping of his US citizenship. While serving his sentence in the federal penitentiary, Debs was nominated for the fifth time, campaigned from his jail cell, and remarkably garnered 917,799 votes.
At his sentencing in 1918, Debs famously told the judge:
“Your honor, years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
To give you an idea of how much work remains for us today, consider that parts of the Espionage Act are still on the books today—just ask Chelsea Manning.
In the late 1960s—thanks to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW)—deciding whether or not to buy grapes was a political act. Three years after its establishment in 1962, the UFW struck against grape growers around Delano, California…a long, bitter, and frustrating struggle that appeared impossible to resolve until Chavez promoted the idea of a national boycott.
Trusting in the average person’s ability to connect with those in need, Chavez and the UFW brought their plight—and a lesson in social justice—into homes from coast-to-coast and Americans responded. The boycott was an unqualified success as grape growers won signed union contracts and a more livable wage.
Through hunger strikes, imprisonment, abject poverty for himself and his large family, racist and corrupt judges, exposure to dangerous pesticides, and even assassination plots, Chavez remained true to the cause…even if meant, uh…stretching the non-violent methods he espoused.
In 1966, when Teamster goons began to rough up Chavez’s picketers, a bit of labor solidarity solved the problem. William Kircher, the AFL-CIO director of organization, called Paul Hall, president of the International Seafarers Union.
“Within hours,” writes author David Goodwin, “Hall sent a carload of the biggest sailors that had ever put to sea to march with the strikers on the picket lines…There followed afterward no further physical harassment.”
This simple man never owned a house or earned more than $6,000 a year. He left no money for his family when he died yet more than 40,000 people marched behind his casket at his funeral to honor four decades spent improving the lives of farm workers.
The roots of Chavez’ effectiveness lay in his ability to connect on a human level. When asked: “What accounts for all the affection and respect so many farm workers show you in public?” Cesar replied: “The feeling is mutual.”
Today, we face a desperate need to downsize the global culture and economy. It’s never been more important to contemplate the value of small farms and of eating what we grow. Cesar Chavez’ fearless challenges to the industrial status quo and his tireless commitment to the working class stand as inspiration example of the power of solidarity.
I share the above stories as a way of reclaiming our folk tales—the episodes that can inspire us. The conditions and the battles and the urgency have all shifted dramatically, but there is still value in remembering those who stood up to tyranny in the past.
In a society as heavily conditioned as ours, keeping the labor in Labor Day is virtually an act of revolution.
(Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism can be ordered here.)