Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Grim History of a Struggle

Labor Day, which was instituted in 1882 in honor of the working man and labor movement, got me thinking about the labor movement and how much of its history connects to my home state of Pennsylvania.

One of the first unions in the U.S. was formed by shoemakers in Philadelphia in 1794. The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers succeeded in securing moderate wage increases for its members for a number of years. But when they initiated a strike for higher wages in 1805 organizers were indicted on charges of conspiracy.

Eight union leaders were brought to trial. After three days of testimony, the jury found them guilty and they were fined $8 each (the equivalent of a week’s wages) plus the costs of the suit.

The law established by this trial, that unions were illegal conspiracies, remained in effect until 1842 when Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled in a Massachusetts case they were legal entities with the right to organize strikes.

Much of the action in the so-called Great Railroad Strike of 1877 took place here in Pennsylvania. The worse violence in that strike occurred in Pittsburgh where more than 40 people were killed. Another 16 civilians were shot down by militia in Reading. On July 25, 1877, here in my hometown of Shamokin, 1,000 men and boys, predominately coal miners, marched on the Reading Railroad Depot when it was announced they would be paid only a dollar a day for emergency public employment. A vigilante group organized by the mayor, a mine owner, killed two and injured 14 of the protesters.

Speaking of miners, Irish laborers were the core of militant union activism in response to drastic wage cuts in the 1860s and 1870s. Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, which owned many of the biggest mines, focused blame primarily on the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish organization. Historians today disagree on the legitimacy of those charges which led to the hanging of 20 men. My novel, Watch The Hour, was partially inspired by tales of the Mollies I heard growing up in the coal region.

In 1892, a strike by Carnegie steelworkers resulted in more violence and deaths in Homestead, Pa. And on Sept. 10, 1897 a sheriff’s posse killed 19 unarmed miners and wounded 30 more in what is now known as the Lattimer Massacre near Hazleton.

As recently as the 1970s I interviewed a principal investigator of the murder of Joseph Yablonski and his family by assassins in retaliation for Yablonski’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat W. A. Boyle, president of the United Mine Workers. In the 1980s, I met and interviewed a son of Lech Walesa, who led the organization of Solidarity in Poland, one of the principal figures of unionism in the 20th century.

I’ve never belonged to a union. Both my parents did. My father worked on the railroad and my mother in the textile industry. Though I’ve witnessed many labor organizations becoming as greedy as the industrialists who fomented their necessity, I think it’s important we recognize Labor Day as more than just an excuse for the last picnic of the summer.

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