Sunday, September 4, 2011

Labor Day

Holidays have lost much of their meaning for us, they're usually just a welcome break from our everyday routine. The bookends of summer, Memorial Day and Labor Day are perhaps the most removed from what they commemorate, so much so that it's not uncommon for people to confuse the two. Memorial Day to most Americans honors something, most folks remember tacitly at least, the soldiers who died for this country. On the other hand, I suspect that the majority of Americans haven't a clue that Labor Day is more than just the last day that we refrain from labor after summer vacation.

As the day to commemorate the contributions of the workingman and woman in the United States, Labor Day came into being in the 1880s, during the period of the most turbulent battles for the rights of workers in this country. Chicago was a major battleground at the time, and one event that took place here was so compelling, that countries all over the world, except this one, celebrate their own Labor Days around that particular event to protest injustice and to honor the men who gave their lives one fateful day in 1887 to the struggle for justice for all workers.

That event was the Haymarket affair. In a nutshell, on May 4th, 1886, a rally was held at Haymarket Square, to support the workers who were striking at the McCormick Reaper Plant on the South Side. The organizers unequivocally emphasized the need for a peaceful rally to prevent the violence that took place the day before at the plant. The rally went on peacefully for a few hours until the police decided it was time to break it up. As they began to move into the assembled crowd, someone from the alley to the left of the speaker's stand threw a bomb in the direction of the police. One officer was immediately killed and mayhem ensued. Police fired into the crowd, some of whom may have returned fire. In the end, eight officers were killed as were an undisclosed number of civilians.

A public outcry went out that someone must pay for the deaths of the policemen, and the organizers of the rally were rounded up. Even though few if any were present at the time of the riot and the identity of the bomb thrower was never discovered, eight of the organizers, Albert Parsons, Louis Lingg, August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, and Oscar Neebe were convicted of conspiracy. For their parts, Neebe got fifteen years, and the rest were sentenced to death. Fielden and Schwab's sentences were later commuted to life in prison. Louis Lingg cheated the hangman on the eve of his execution by biting down on an explosive capsule. Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fischer went to the gallows on November 11, 1887.

Shortly before his death Spies said:

"The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today."

His prophetic words would become his and the rest of the Haymarket martyrs' epitaph. Their grave is marked with a tremendous allegorical statue by Albert Weinert based on the French anthem the Marseillaise, which was sung by Spies, Parsons, Engel and Fischer on their way to the gallows. A female figure represents Justice. In one hand she places a laurel wreath upon the head of a fallen worker, while in the other hand she prepares to draw a sword.

The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument, at the Forest Home Cemetery in the suburb of Forest Park, while being under the radar of most Chicagoans, is a pilgrimage site to anyone interested in issues involving labor and workers' rights.

Needless to say, labor issues are making headlines as we speak. Whatever side you may take, even if you're smack dab in the middle like me, if you earn a living through a paycheck, you owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to these men and the countless others who gave so much so that we all could have a better life.

Happy Labor Day.

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