Commentary: Why Americans should discuss immigration on Labor Day

Most people these days are unaware of the role of immigrant workers in the origin of Labor Day. Americans see Labor Day as the-end-of-summer holiday finale and know little about its bloody beginning 132 years ago.

Labor Day grew out of the demand in the late 1800s for an 8-hour workday; 60-hour workweeks were common then. The labor movement targeted May 1, 1886, as the date for compliance by industry nationwide with the demand. Industry refused, and hundreds of thousands of workers walked off their jobs and demonstrated across the country. Their rally cry was: “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay.”

On May 3, striking workers met near the McCormick Harvesting Machine plant in Chicago, which 400 police garrisoned. During a heated confrontation between striking and strike-breaking employees, police fired into the crowd, killing at least two strikers.

This led to a peaceful rally the next evening at Haymarket Square, toward the end of which police marched in to break up the assembly. A riot ensued, leaving an officer dead and six policemen mortally wounded. Four workers died, and scores were injured.

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Eight worker organizers were arrested for killing the policeman with a bomb, although only one of them was actually present. Ultimately, amid hysteria revved up by the media, an anti-immigrant jury convicted the men. A biased judge sentenced seven to death, and one to 15 years in prison. Four were hanged; one committed a grisly suicide before his hanging.

In 1887, Gov. Richard Oglesby commuted the other two executions. Six years later, Gov. John Altgeld pardoned the remaining three men as victims of “hysteria, packed juries, and a biased judge,” noting the state never discovered who threw the bomb and no evidence connected the men with whoever threw it.

The national and international reaction to the Haymarket Massacre and the sham trial was fierce, leading May 1 to become International Workers Day in 1890, which is celebrated worldwide. The United States, however, recognizing the importance of honoring workers, but wanting to distance itself from the origins of May 1, created Labor Day in September instead.

The American holiday also ignores its beginning in the struggle of immigrant workers.

Eventually, the labor movement struggle begun by these immigrants brought enormous benefits: the 8-hour day and 5-day week, overtime pay, minimum wage, workplace safeguards, paid vacations, sick leave, employer-provided health insurance, job security and many other protections written into law.

Much like the exploitation of German, Irish, and English immigrant workers who formed the early labor movement, the exploitation of today’s immigrants continues in full-force, though augmented by administration policy.

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Although immigration laws in the late 1800s favored laborers entering the country to make industry a powerhouse, current policy does not. But the similarity in the nation’s need for immigrant workers is the same, as seen in agriculture, construction and service trades these days. An estimated 8 million undocumented individuals compose about 5 percent of the American workforce.

Undocumented immigrant workers were essential in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; the same is happening in the aftermath of Harvey a year ago. But it’s a “wink-wink” operation; let the undocumented folks do the work and enforce immigration later.

In other work situations around Texas and the nation, emphasis on deporting people has driven much of the immigrant community underground and increased exploitation and wage-theft. Like other attorneys, I have cases where people work a week at minimum wages and then are refused pay. There is little legal recourse because of the fear of deportation, and we must resort to other means to make sure workers can feed their families with what they have earned.

If a business relies on undocumented workers, it should pay fairly for their labor — and the law should protect the workers. That would be how we should honor Labor Day and our immigrant forbears who brought justice to the workplace through suffering and organizing.

Harrington, a human rights attorney in Austin, is founder and director emeritus of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

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