Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Strikes of 1877 & 1886: Historic Precedents For Occupy Wall Street

There is an historic precedent for the Occupy Wall Street movement -- the labor strikes of 1877 and 1886.

While thuggish police and troops made those late 19th century strikes as violent as Occupy Wall Street protests have been peaceful, the two sets of events are inextricably bound by the same dynamic: In 1877 and 1886, the hundreds of thousands of striking workers were revolting against the robber barons and capitalists who tightly controlled their lives while today's demonstrations are
a reflection of the hopelessness most of us feel about reforming let alone fighting back against the financial institutions that are a de facto shadow government responsible for the ongoing economic downturn.

The antecedent to the 1877 strikes was the financial panic of September 1773, which was fueled by rampant stock market speculation. By 1874, a million workers were without jobs and some cities had unemployment rates approaching 25 percent in the greatest depression up to that point in American history.

The response of the robber barons and corporate chiefs was to make workers work longer hours for less pay, which undercut the substantial gains that labor unions had made after the Civil War.

"The necessities of the great railroad companies demanded that there should be a reduction of wages," thundered the imperious Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent Brooklyn minister with a wealthy congregation. "Was not a dollar a day enough to buy bread! Water costs nothing and the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live."

The patience of American workers finally broke in July 1877 after the heads of four major railroads cut employee wages by another 10 percent, the second such cut in a year although stockholder dividends had continued through the depression.

On July 19, railroad workers, iron molders and other tradesmen shut down the sprawling Pittsburgh railroad yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then America's largest corporation.

When a local militia made up of working-class men refused to enforce laws against their compatriots, less sympathetic troops sent from Philadelphia moved in, killing 20 protesters, including women and children. The strike turned into a riot and the mobs routed the troops, surrounded the roundhouse of the main yard, tore up miles of track and set fire to many trains and cars.

One hundred thousand workers nationwide eventually became involved in the strike and at least 100 died and hundreds more were wounded. And for the first time the federal government intervened for capitalists against laborers, which considerably diminished the power and size of labor unions.

Prosperity returned before the decade was out, but another long depression began in 1883 and labor unions again began growing while fledgling anarchist organizations called for the overthrow of capitalism.

By 1885 the anarchist movement had grown to the point that anarchists had taken over the leadership of the Central Labor Union, Chicago's largest.

Alabama-born labor leader Albert Parsons told several thousand members at a September 1885 rally, "We are revolutionists. We fight for the destruction of the system of wage-slavery. The claim of capital to profit, interest or rent is a robber claim, enforced by piratical methods. Let robbers and pirates meet the fate they deserve!"

The anarchists' bark was always worse than their bite while the eight-hour work week being demanded by many unions became their rallying cry.

On May 1 of the following year, a date not yet recognized as a labor holiday, 300,000 workers nationwide went on strike, 40,000 of them in Chicago. The walkout in the Windy City was peaceful but eventually became entwined with an ongoing strike at the enormous McCormick harvester plant where wages were being rolled back by replacing the entire force of iron molders.

On May 3, police attacked strikers with clubs and then with guns. Two workers were killed and many wounded. The next night, the anarchists called for an open meeting in Haymarket Square. The turnout was small and the meeting was on the verge of breaking up when the police appeared and began a new assault. As they charged, a bomb exploded in their midst and police began firing their revolvers indiscriminately as the crowd panicked. When the smoke cleared, seven police offices were dead, most killed by their fellow officers, as well as a never determined number of civilians.

Eight anarchist leaders were arrested and tried for conspiracy. Four were hanged and one committed suicide before he could be hung.

Most workers were soon granted eight-hour work days but major labor unions again went into eclipse and workers began organizing along craft lines.

Nevertheless, the Haymarket Massacre and three other major strikes elsewhere in the U.S. in 1886 were a watershed, starkly drawing the lines between the corporate elites and labor and more clearly defining the massive social and economic changes gripping America.

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