An overseer and two grimy boy doffers face the photographer in a Birmingham, Alabama, textile factory.
The textile mill epitomized mechanized industry, which made humans servants of machines. Textile manufacture was one of the earliest industries in the US, one often associated with ‘sweated’ labor. Exploitative practices reached an apogee in the late nineteenth-century American South, where mills employed black and white workers with no other prospects, drawing in many poor Appalachian families. Conditions in the mills were such that workers (many of them children) were virtually enslaved. Despite laboring incessantly, they lived in poverty, without recourse to their employer’s authority. The overseer in this picture boasted of having 30 doffers to do his bidding. The doffers’ job was to run to replace full spindles with empty ones to keep the looms running smoothly.
Industrial America has ever been one of environmentalism’s staunchest enemies. Efforts to set higher standards for food and drug safety, for purer air and water, and for cleaner and less toxic methods in agriculture, manufacturing, and the extractive industries must all contend with this constant drag. The pollution and spoliation of our environment and the globe’s finite resources is ongoing. One wonders what lever might be applied, in addition to the tired ones of law and conscience.
Looking at this picture suggests another form of pressure, namely, the green convictions of a younger generation of American workers. Many children of factory workers, for instance, now refuse to consider careers in manufacturing, for the simple reason that they see it as dangerous and dirty. And when we look at many of the ugly industrial regions on the country, with their belching smokestacks and their tankers of waste, we can easily see why they disapprove.
I wonder whether in time the greening of America’s young people might have a powerful effect in getting American industry to clean up, too. The US economy will wither if its productive enterprises can no longer claim the loyalty and commitment of its most talented and discerning youth.
The years after the end of WWI were turbulent ones in the United States. A slump came with peace, as wartime demand for American agricultural and industrial output weakened, diminishing American opportunities. The Russian Revolution of 1917, and the radical political ferment that contributed to it, had a profound effect on political activism in the States, as workers and intellectuals explored whether communist or socialist doctrines could be used to revolutionize a capitalist system that was generating unacceptably high levels of inequality and suffering. The anarchist sentiment that had triggered the outbreak of WWI had never vanished, and it combined with other domestic conditions, including historically high rates of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, to make the years before 1920 ones of conflict and unease.
In Chicago, the year 1918 got underway with the arrest of a nineteen-year-old Italian-born radical named Gabriella Antolini, who was found carrying a satchel full of dynamite (36 pounds) along with a loaded pistol through Union Station. The press immediately dubbed her ‘the Dynamite Girl.’ A professed follower of anarchist Luigi Galeani, Antolini served eighteen months in prison. She was a sympathizer of the IWW, the radical labor union headed by Big Bill Haywood and headquartered in the city. That summer, Chicago tried to stay steady amid a series of bombings and attempted bombings, typically connected with labor disputes, and some seemingly involving IWW members, known as Wobblies.
On September 4, 1918, a bomb exploded in the north lobby of Chicago’s Federal Building, killing four people. According to later accounts, a man in a tan raincoat had been seen pacing around the building around 3:00pm with a cigar box with a string dangling from one side of it under his arm. He was seen to drop the cigar box and kick it under a radiator near the Adams Street entrance before hurrying away. According to Sean Deveney, writing on his website The Original Curse, the explosion was so powerful that it ripped open the Federal Building and threw from their seats employees at work inside the neighboring Marquette and Edison Buildings. The buildings’ windows were shattered, shards of glass raining onto the streets. Although many suspected a connection to the recently concluded trial and conviction of some 100 IWW officials, the perpetrator of the crime was never found.
Image: The wreckage of Chicago’s Federal Building, 1918, from this source.
I WAS RUSHING out of my office building the other day when I ran smack dab into a May Day parade. It took me a minute to realize it wasn’t just another Occupy rally. No, the date was the first of May, when, by tradition, workers around the world take to the streets en masse, their parades a vivid display of emotion and identity.
It was striking was how un-specific this demonstration was. It didn’t have much to do with labor in particular or something specific workers might actually need. It seemed to have more to do with how unfair life is—a general proposition we might all assent to.
Seeing the marchers made me think about how much the nature of work and the status of workers in the US has changed over the decades, since May Day observances first began. International Workers Day, as it is officially called, was instituted to mark the anniversary of the Haymarket disturbances in Chicago when, in 1886, violence erupted as police sought to dispel a crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality toward workers demonstrating for the eight-hour day. Eight policemen were killed, an unknown number of protesters were killed and injured, and 4 probably innocent demonstrators were later hanged in what was one of the most infamous incidents in labor history.
The heroic struggles of those earlier generations of workers were quite remarkable. Their disciplined efforts brought about many important gains: the abolition of child labor, the minimum wage, safety inspections, the 40-hour week. Without the labor movement, most of us would not have anything like the standard of living we enjoy today. One has only to dip into Freidrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Classes in England or Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills or Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives to recall why their struggles were necessary.
Bits of that story are told in photographs such as these, preserved at the Library of Congress.
These girls were photographed on May Day in New York City in 1909. Their sashes bear the words “Abolish Child Slavery” in English and Yiddish.
This protester was a member of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World), also known as “the Wobblies.” Wobblies believed in the international brotherhood of labor and dreamed of improving conditions of workers the world over. A labor movement like that today would still have much to do. Looking at this photo makes me think of some of the labor movement’s missed opportunities.
In good times and bad, May Day has inspired expressions of worker pride, as displayed in this wonderful photograph of female garment workers in 1919. You would never guess from looking at these ladies how very punishing their occupation was.
Maybe that is one of the differences between that era and today: whereas, then, many workers suffered from conditions that were local and immediate, the costs global capitalism inflicts on American workers are more abstract and harder to see.
There was a great deal to ponder in even a fleeting glimpse of a modern May Day parade.
Additional information regarding Library of Congress images: here and here and here