As a people we like to mark the anniversaries of important events in our lives. This is true for nations, individuals, corporations, and political groups.
The labor movement has been mostly left out of this tradition. This is my effort to change that. For instance, this Wednesday is the 160th Birthday of Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL.
For this essay I would like to concentrate of events, such as this Tuesday is the anniversary of the very first worker's compensation agreement.
An Unusual Worker's Compensation Agreement
Work on the High Seas in the 17th Century was dangerous and unrewarding. Its for these reasons more than any other that piracy spread. Generally the person who had the most to fear from being captured by pirates was the captain of the ship.
According to The Many-Headed Hydra, the pirate vessels of the days were incredibly progressive in their egalitarianism (all captains were elected) and race was not a factor in duties or rank.
Given this, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to discover that pirate ships were pioneers in the idea of workers compensation.
It was the custom to draw up articles of agreement before the commencement of a voyage, and it can be certain that the men who joined [Captain] Kidd on the Adventure Galley at London signed such an agreement. These articles regulated the various charges and payments to all members of the crew. Esquemiling, in the Buccaneers of America, writes of such agreements in the following terms:
Lastly, they stipulate in writing what recompense or reward each one ought to have that is either wounded or maimed in his body, suffering the loss of any limb, by that voyage. Thus they order for the loss of a right arm 600 pieces-of-eight, or 6 slaves; for the loss of a left arm 500 pieces-of-eight; or 5 slaves; for a right leg 500 pieces-of-eight, or 5 slaves; for a left leg 400 pieces-of-eight, or 4 slaves; for an eye 100 pieces-of-eight, or one slave; for a finger of the hand the same reward as the same eye.
Trouble with the help, American style
Canal work was dangerous and the living conditions primitive. Canallers toiled from sunup to sundown, exposed to injuries common to physical labor and the epidemics that regularly swept public works construction - malaria, yellow fever, and cholera, which struck the C&O in 1832...Theirs was a difficult existence marked by hard toil, rude conditions, a bare subsistence, and a high degree of transience.
The difficult conditions broke the workers into tribal groups. In late January 1834, workers from northern Ireland (Longfords) began violent battles with workers from southern Ireland (Corkonians). Eventually a strike began.
The state militia was called in, and after they shot a few workers the situation settled down.
Which brings us to another anniversary in labor history. This Thursday, January 29, 1834, President Andrew Jackson set a historic first.
Andrew Jackson becomes the first president to use federal troops to quell labor unrest; called on Secretary of War Lewis Cass to send Federal troops in to quell the workers; set a dangerous precedent for future labor-management relations. Workers building the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal were rebelling because of persistent poor working conditions and low pay.
Posse Comitatus be damned.
The reason why federal troops shouldn't be used against workers was made clear 60 years later.
Trouble with the help Part 2; the cradle of labor activism
If you are good at American history then you would know that the First Continental Congress took place in Philadelphia in 1774. If you are really good at American history then you will also know that this event happened in Carpenters' Hall.
But you would have to be spectacular at American history to know that Carpenters' Hall was owned by Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia, an early labor union guild in American history.
WHEREAS, it appears to this Assembly that, in the year one thousand seven hundred and twenty-four, a number of the House Carpenters of the City and County of Philadelphia formed themselves into a Company, for the purpose of obtaining instruction in the science of architecture, and assisting such of their members as should by accident be in need of support, or the widows and minor children of members;...
Philadelphia wasn't just the cradle of American democracy. It was also the cradle of labor activism.
In 1791, the Carpenters struck unsuccessfully for a 10-hour day. It was the first building trades strike, which was also the same year as the adoption of the Constitution.
However, the Carpenters weren't the first labor union guild, nor the first ones to strike. The first labor union guild was the Boston Shoemakers created on October 18, 1648. However, they weren't a real labor union. They were more a collusion between the employers and the journeyman against unskilled labor.
The honor of the first verifiable strike belongs to the New York Shoemakers in 1785. Their strike was about low wages and lasted for three weeks. The strike failed and the bosses retaliated by forming their own employer's combination.
The first successful strike in American history was by the Philadelphia printers in 1786.
In 1786, Philadelphia's employing printers collectively attempted to reduce the wages of skilled print craftsmen to $5.83 per week. In response, on 31 May 1786, twenty-six Philadelphia craftsmen jointly resolved to "not engage to work for any printing establishment in this city or county under the sum of $6.00 per week," and to "support such of our brethren as shall be thrown out of employment on account of their refusing to work for less than $6.00 per week." Standing by their resolution, these craftsmen waged what was probably the new nation's first labor strike, successfully procuring a $6-per-week minimum wage for skilled printers citywide.
However, the first unauthenticated strike in America may have come from the most unlikely of sources. The Charleston Gazette on October 29, 1763, has a very unusual news report.
It seems that Negro chimney sweepers "had the insolence, by a combination amongst themselves, to raise the usual price, and to refuse doing their work, unless their exorbitant demands are complied with."
Philadelphia was first in another major milestone in labor history - the general strike.
"The blood sucking aristocracy stood aghast; terror stricken they thought the day of retribution had come."
- John Ferral, union leader
The idea of a general strike was first circulated by a man named William Benbow. Benbow was an English socialist, but his radical ideas about "common concerted job action across occupational lines" began circulating in pamphlet form on the east coast in 1831.
Seventeen trade unions struck for a 10-hour day in Baltimore in 1833, but the strike was quickly crushed. Shortly afterwards a similar effort was made in Boston, and met a similar fate.
Word travelled from city to city. By June 1835, Philadelphia was ready.
Three hundred armed Irish longshoremen marched through the streets calling workers to join them on strike. Leather workers, printers, carpenters, bricklayers, masons, city employees, bakers, clerks and painters joined in, carrying their tools.
In all, 20,000 workers walked off their jobs and idled the city in a general strike for a 10-hour day. In what might be called the first "concern troll" in history, the Germantown Telegraph fretted for the well-being of the workers.
the brevity of only a sixty-hour week would be harmful to workers, that all the extra time would be "applied to useless and unworthy purposes."
After a week the city government caved. City workers would now only work 10 hours, from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M., with one hour for lunch and one hour for dinner. Three weeks later the other employers in the city gave in to the general strike. The 10 hour day was adopted throughout the city along with some wage increases.
The success of the general strike electrified the labor movement, and a wave of strikes swept the east coast. By the following year the 10-hour day was the standard for skilled workers. In 1840 President Martin Van Buren instituted the ten hour day for federal employees.
Trouble with the help Part 3, or On Strike Against God
The most noteworthy of firsts in labor history has to be the very first recorded strike. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing what day this occurred.
toward the end of the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses III widespread corruption and inefficiency had made Egypt barely governable, and construction at the city of Thebes had apparently severely depleted the grain reserves used to pay the workers at the royal necropolis. On the 21st day of the second month, in Ramses's 29th year, the scribe Amennakht personally delivered a formal complaint about this situation to the royal mortuary temple that was part of the large administrative complex of Medinet Habu. The workers implored,
"We are hungry: eighteen days have elapsed in the month."
Although a payment was soon made, the poor conditions continued, and in the sixth month of that year the workers organized the first recorded strike in history. The men of the two crews stopped work and marched together to one of the royal mortuary temples, where they staged what would today be called a sit-in. The men insisted,
"It was because of hunger and thirst that we came here. There is no clothing, no ointment, no fish, no vegetables. Send to Pharaoh our good lord about it, and send to the vizier our superior, that sustenance may be made for us."
The workers repeated their protest on the following day within the complex of another temple, and possibly a third, until their complaints were recorded by the priests and sent across the river to Thebes. Only then were the rations owed finally distributed. However, similar protests were repeated before the reign of Ramses III ended; and even in the reigns of subsequent Pharaohs workers had to go on strike in order to receive payment.
This was around 1158 or 1157 B.C.