The year was 1886 and the day, May 1. American laborers had been demanding better working conditions including reducing the working schedule to a maximum of eight hours. Working hours extended between 10 and 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week with no annual downtime, sick or personal time—all those benefits many workers enjoy today.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had established May 1 to start the eight-hour work day but employers resisted. Demonstrations escalated between laborers and employers, who used violence and repression to reject unions’ demands. Finally during a rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, great violence between demonstrators and the police resulted in several dead and injured from both sides.
Fifteen anarchist workers were detained, later taken into trial for conspiracy and convicted, some facing life in prison. Four of the defendants—Engel, Fischer, Parsons and Spies—were executed.
The labor movement took action and despite the consequences of the events, it continued to grow and claim many other benefits that workers enjoy today.
Are labor unions popular in the United States?
While labor unions are still powerful in many countries—19.8 percent in Germany, 41.7 percent in Belgium, 53.1 percent in Italy and 29.7 percent in Finland compared to 12.5 percent in the United States (2003 data)—in the United States they have lost influence not only among their members but also in the public support.
Union membership in the private sector has fallen under 7 percent. Labor leaders are usually accused of living in luxury and political corruption without really representing workers interests.
On this International Labor Day, after the events in Wisconsin and in so many other examples of companies gaining power against labor unions such as the Twinkies and Wal-Mart international labor strategies , many elected officials run their campaigns promising to restrain the power of unions. Voters are sustaining these efforts.
On their part, union leaders claim that employers and politicians are opposing the bargaining power of unions. The long-standing support of unions by the Democratic Party has contributed to this decline in their membership.
Teachers and police remain the largest unions among the public sector. Usually, members are mostly older male workers residing in states in the Northeast, the Midwest and on the West Coast.
Union decline and income inequality
According to a 2011 study by the Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2007 the top one percent earners gained about 275 percent in income after taxes compared to just under 40 percent for 60 percent of the American middle-class.
Since the early 1970s and during this same period, union membership declined significantly from around 30 to 6.8 percent.
Women wages inequality in the private sector increased by more than 50 percent, and by about 40 percent among men, according to a study published by the American Sociological Review.
“Across the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of companies, the average multiple of CEO compensation to that of rank-and-file workers is 204, up 20 percent since 2009, the data shows. The numbers are based on industry-specific estimates for worker compensation.” (Bloomberg)
Focusing on full-time, private sector workers, the study authors found that “deunionization—the decline in the percentage of the labor force that is unionized—and educational stratification each explain about 33 percent of the rise in within-group wage inequality among men. Among women, deunionization explains about 20 percent of the increase in wage inequality, whereas education explains more than 40 percent.”
People feel unions do not need to represent workers about safety or inhuman conditions in the workplace or negotiate wages and benefits. In truth, there is no need because those conditions were established by unions’ demands in collective bargaining, which helped build a strong middle class in America. Most workers take them for granted.
Public sector unions are even more resisted as they represent workers who depend on taxpayers’ money. Teachers, firefighters and police are just some of most opposed unions but public education and safety are of main concern when natural disasters or terror attacks hit sectors of the population.
Obviously, the international Labor Day is not celebrated in the United States.