‘Wel­come, Sons of Toil’

One hun­dred and fifty years ago, Bal­ti­more wel­comed work­ers from across the coun­try to es­tab­lish the first truly na­tional la­bor move­ment

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE - —An­drew A. Green

De­spite the re­cent in­sis­tence of some statewide elected of­fi­cials, La­bor Day’s pur­pose is nei­ther to serve as the end of the Ocean City tourism sea­son nor as the day be­fore school be­gins for the fall. Rather, it is a hol­i­day with its ori­gins in the 1880s “ded­i­cated to the so­cial and eco­nomic achieve­ments of Amer­i­can work­ers,” ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of La­bor’s of­fi­cial de­scrip­tion. “It con­sti­tutes a yearly na­tional trib­ute to the con­tri­bu­tions work­ers have made to the strength, pros­per­ity, and well-be­ing of our coun­try.”

If ever there was a time when work­ers could use a lit­tle recog­ni­tion, it’s now. Years of stag­nant wages and widen­ing in­come in­equal­ity have fu­eled a po­lit­i­cal pop­ulism on the right and left that the na­tion hasn’t seen in gen­er­a­tions. For many who have fallen be­hind in a sys­tem they see as rigged, the sit­u­a­tion may seem hope­less. But the his­tory of or­ga­nized la­bor in the United States is one of strug­gle against seem­ingly hope­less odds, with vic­to­ries of­ten decades in the mak­ing.

It’s a his­tory in which Bal­ti­more plays a proud part. In fact, the city can lay some claim as the birth­place of the na­tional or­ga­nized la­bor move­ment, al­most pre­cisely 150 years ago.

The eight-hour day A new party

This im­age of the first La­bor Day pa­rade in New York City was pub­lished in Frank Leslie’s Il­lus­trated News­pa­per in Septem­ber 1882.

‘From North, South, East and West’

In the 1860s, lo­cal trades unions were com­mon through­out the United States, but they were far from a uni­fied force in na­tional pol­i­tics. Noth­ing like the AFL-CIO ex­isted at the time — an early at­tempt at such an en­tity fiz­zled in the 1830s — but af­ter the Civil War, some lead­ers in the move­ment be­gan dis­cussing the need for an or­ga­ni­za­tion that would speak not on be­half of work­ers in one in­dus­try or an­other but for the needs of la­bor­ers in gen­eral. Out of those dis­cus­sions came the La­bor Congress, an un­prece­dented gath­er­ing of union of­fi­cials from var­i­ous trades in Bal­ti­more for five days in Au­gust of 1866.

Ac­cord­ing to The Sun’s ex­ten­sive re­port­ing on the meet­ing, car­pen­ters, ship builders, wood turn­ers, har­ness mak­ers, house painters, pat­tern mak­ers, can mak­ers, coach mak­ers, railroad work­ers, min­ers, me­chan­ics, ma­sons, mar­ble cut­ters, book­binders and more gath­ered un­der a ban­ner that read “Wel­come, Sons of Toil — From North, South, East and West.” The del­e­gates had closely watched the la­bor move­ment flour­ish in Eng­land and win suc­cess in Par­lia­ment, and they were deter­mined to achieve the same here.

The in­ter­ests of the as­sem­bly were broad. Del­e­gates con­sid­ered is­sues re­lated to the dis­po­si­tion of pub­lic lands, con­vict la­bor, the cre­ation of “lyceums and read­ing rooms” for work­ing­men through­out the land, the na­tional debt, the en­dorse­ment of la­bor-friendly news­pa­pers in var­i­ous cities, the need to re­store South­ern cot­ton pro­duc­tion af­ter the Civil War and the ill ef­fects of ten­e­ment hous­ing. But the cen­tral is­sue was the ef­fort to se­cure an eight-hour work­day.

The first res­o­lu­tion adopted by the congress read, “The first and grand con­sid­er­a­tion of the hour, in or­der to de­liver the la­bor of the coun­try from this thrall­dom, is the adop­tion of a law whereby eight hours shall con­sti­tute a le­gal day’s work in ev­ery State of the Amer­i­can Union.” The com­mit­tee ded­i­cated to pur­su­ing the is­sue con­sid­ered it nec­es­sary for work­ers to have “more time for moral, in­tel­lec­tual and so­cial cul­ture ... be­liev­ing that this de­mand is the re­sult of that con­di­tion of progress in which the work­ing­men of this na­tion are pre­pared to take a step higher in the scale of moral and in­tel­lec­tual life.”

The big ques­tion was how to go about it. In gen­eral — at least as The Sun’s re­ports have it — the del­e­gates didn’t ex­press par­tic­u­lar an­tipa­thy to­ward em­ploy­ers, and they es­chewed strikes as a tac­tic. The com­mit­tee study­ing the is­sue of strikes con­cluded “that as a rule they are pro­duc­tive of great in­jury to the la­bor­ing classes; that many have been in­ju­di­cious and ill ad­vised, and a re­sult of im­pulse rather than prin­ci­ple; that those who have been fiercest in their ad­vo­cacy have been the first to ad­vo­cate sub­mis­sion.”

In­stead, they set their at­ten­tions on achiev­ing progress through the po­lit­i­cal arena, with a di­vide be­tween those who wished to see the la­bor move­ment work within ex­ist­ing po­lit­i­cal struc­tures and those who thought it nec­es­sary to cre­ate a new la­bor­ers’ party.

The lat­ter idea had strong pro­po­nents. The eight-hour com­mit­tee’s rec­om­mended res­o­lu­tion ob­served that “the his­tory and leg­is­la­tion of the past have demon­strated the fact that no de­pen­dence what­ever can be placed on the pledges or pro­fes­sions of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of ei­ther ex­ist­ing po­lit­i­cal party, so far as the in­ter­ests of the in­dus­trial classes are con­cerned.” Even then, money talked when it came to pol­i­tics.

The com­mit­tee’s ad­vo­cacy for a la­bor­ers’ party pro­voked what The Sun called an “earnest and able” dis­cus­sion with strong sen­ti­ments on both sides. Crit­ics said cre­at­ing a new party would make the move­ment a “laugh­ing stock” and re­sult in “a war of la­bor against cap­i­tal,” which la­bor would lose.

On the third day of the con­ven­tion, it was adopted, 35-24, but del­e­gates, led by Mary­lan­ders, moved the next day for it to be re­con­sid­ered on the grounds that the for­ma­tion of a na­tional la­bor party so soon af­ter the Civil War and its con­se­quent abridg­ments of po­lit­i­cal and civil rights would be a mis­take. “When we ac­quire our rights, we are with you,” said a Mr. Cather of Bal­ti­more. Later that af­ter­noon, the res­o­lu­tion was re­vised to call for cre­ation of such a party “as soon as prac­ti­ca­ble,” which all but si­lenced the dis­sent.

The re­ac­tion

The Sun ed­i­to­rial at the con­clu­sion of the congress, read at the re­move of 150 years, comes across as more than a bit pa­tron­iz­ing to­ward the del­e­gates’ ef­forts. The Sun noted that it was no sur­prise that such an as­sem­bly wrestling with the re­la­tion of la­bor and cap­i­tal would not “de­vise more than a few gen­eral propo­si­tions” that would in turn re­quire “mod­i­fi­ca­tion be­fore they are fi­nally ac­cepted as rep­re­sent­ing the univer­sal in­ter­est of the work­ing classes.” The most it would say about the eight-hour day that an­i­mated the con­ven­tion, and in­deed the whole la­bor move­ment of the day, was that “dis­cus­sion is likely to en­sue in leg­isla­tive bod­ies on the sub­ject, bring­ing out facts and ar­gu­ment on both sides, by which to de­ter­mine whether it is prac­ti­ca­ble or wise.”

The Sun was, how­ever, en­thu­si­as­tic about the idea of op­pos­ing strikes and that the la­bor move­ment should en­cour­age work­ers to aban­don the fac­to­ries and take up agri­cul­ture in­stead. “Many of our cities are over­crowded with la­bor­ing men who en­gage in ru­inous com­pe­ti­tion with each other, and nev­er­the­less are un­able prop­erly to pro­vide for their wives and chil­dren, whereas if they were to turn their ef­forts to agri­cul­ture, they would pros­per, main­tain their fam­i­lies in dis­com­fort, and add ma­te­ri­ally to the wealth and devel­op­ment of our coun­try.” In other words, good rid­dance to the riffraff.

Suc­cess and down­fall

The move­ment had early suc­cess, of a sort, when Congress passed a law in 1868 call­ing for an eight-hour day for fed­eral work­ers. A year later, Pres­i­dent Ulysses S. Grant signed a procla­ma­tion de­cree­ing that such work­ers’ wages should not be cut as a re­sult, but it was of­ten ig­nored. Lo­cal and state eight-hour laws also proved to be com­pro­mised by loop­holes. Nonethe­less, for a time, the Na­tional La­bor Union flour­ished, re­port­edly boast­ing some hun­dreds of thou­sands of mem­bers.

But the crit­ics of the idea of form­ing a la­bor party proved prophetic. In 1872, the union nom­i­nated Supreme Court Jus­tice David Davis, an Illi­noisan, as its pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Davis dropped out when it be­came clear that the party would get lit­tle sup­port, and the union never re­cov­ered. Sa­muel Gom­pers, the great early leader of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor, would later ob­serve, “A can­di­date was placed in the field, but it was at the cost of the life of the or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

Nev­er­the­less, the idea of a na­tional la­bor move­ment was now fully formed and would flour­ish briefly un­der the Knights of La­bor and more en­dur­ingly in the form of the AFL. Even if the move­ment failed to bring la­bor and cap­i­tal into per­fect har­mony, it did re­sult in in­nu­mer­able work­place re­forms we now take for granted. That is the legacy we cel­e­brate on La­bor Day.


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