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The Result of Labor September 7, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
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“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then 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; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

– Eugene V. Debs, quoted from his statement to the Federal Court (Cleveland, Ohio), after being convicted of violating the Sedition Act, September 18, 1918

Today, the first Monday in September, is Labor Day in the United States and parts of Canada. We often think of Labor Day as the long weekend that marks the end of summer and the beginning of “our regular routines.” It’s one of the Federal holidays typically marked with big sales, fairs, parades, and the last big barbecues and picnics. However, there is nothing typical about this year and – with the exception of the parades – none of this reflects the original intention behind Labor Day.

Labor Day has a bloody history rooted in the Labor Movement, whose history runs parallel to the history of the Socialist Movement. It was one of the outcomes of social activism and what happens when the government decides not to honor its citizens’ right to assembly. In fact, the federal holiday was established in the United States as a direct response to conflict which arose the first time the federal government used an injunction to break up a workers’ strike in the United States.

During the last twenty years of the 19th century, there were approximately 37,000 strikes in the United States, resulting in at least 800 people being killed – with almost all the deaths being the result of altercations between the striking workers and state security forces or the military. Everything came to a head, however, with the Pullman Strike (and subsequent railroad boycott) during the late Spring and Summer of 1894.

The Pullman Palace Car Company was not only a major employer of a diverse workforce, it was also the owner and operator of the Illinois town where most of its workers lived. The company provided homes as well as groceries and all other amenities…for a fee, of course. When the economic depression kicked in 1893, the company lowered the workers already low wages; however, it did not lower rent or the cost of other goods and services within the town. Facing starvation, the workers attempted to schedule a meeting with the company’s president, George M. Pullman. When Pullman refused to meet with the workers they voted to strike. As the strike began, the company announced that the factory was closed – essentially undermining the workers’ leverage. Most of the workers, however, were part of the American Railway Union (ARU) and when the union met, for its first annual convention, it voted for a boycott.

I’m condensing and simplifying the situation a bit here, but the bottom line is that there was a cascade affect that successfully tied up railway traffic on all lines west of Chicago and eventually in most of the United States (with the exception of the East and Deep South where the striking unions were not as strong). While the union leadership, in particular the ARU’s president Eugene V. Debs urged the striking workers and their families to stay calm, people were filled with anger and that anger turned a peaceful rally into a rage-filled moment that derailed a locomotive which was attached to a U. S. Mail train. Previously, states and local militia had engaged the wildcat strikes that were breaking out, but after the events of June 29th, an injunction was obtained which cited the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Interstate Commerce Act – and prevented the ARU leadership from communicating with the striking workers, even  to urge peaceful protests. The injunction also enabled President Grover Cleveland to order in federal troops, whose orders were not focused on peace, but instead on making sure the trains kept running.

The arrival of the federal troops further enraged the striking workers and their supporters, who overturned trains, erected barriers, and destroyed railcars. Ironically, this uptick of destruction started in Independence Day. By July 7th, the altercations had turned deadly. By the second week of July, upwards of 250,000 workers in 27 states were participating in some aspect of the protests and riots. Whereas people outside of the workforce had initially sympathized with the workers, it had become something the general populace feared would directly impact them in a detrimental way. The mainstream media and the United States Congress also started changing their minds about the situation. By the end, at least 30 people had been killed, the ARU leadership had been arrested, and the strikers had lost over $1 million in wages. The railroads had lost millions of dollars in revenue and in looted and damaged property.

And, this is where things turned again.

Previously, as trade unions and the labor movement worked for workers’ rights , including fair wages and safe working conditions, different groups chose different dates to celebrate and honor the “contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and wellbeing of our country.” After the deaths of the workers in the Summer of 1894, Congress and President Cleveland needed something to maintain peace and acknowledge the needs of the people. They decided to dedicate a day, complete with a street parade, to recognize the “social and economic achievements of American workers.” Of course, May Day (May 1st) was already International Workers’ Day, but it was so closely associated with the Socialist Movement – which some of the ARU leadership was gravitating towards – that President Cleveland wanted a day that would not encourage additional strikes and protests. Today is that day.

“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.”

– quoted from “Life of Eugene V. Debs” in Debs : His Life, Writings and Speeches by Stephen Marion Reynolds, edited by Bruce Rogers and Stephen Marion Reynolds

Please join me on the virtual mat today (Monday, September 7th) at 5:30 PM for a 75-minute virtual yoga practice.

This is a 75-minute Common Ground Meditation Center practice that, in the spirit of generosity (dana), is freely given and freely received. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

If you are able to support the center and its teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” my other practices, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible, class purchases are not necessarily.)

There is no playlist for the Common Ground practices.

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

– Eugene V. Debs, quoted from his statement to the Federal Court (Cleveland, Ohio), after being convicted of violating the Sedition Act, September 18, 1918

### RELEASE • RELAX • REST ###

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