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"Labor Day:" A Commentary

By Tom Dodge

Dallas, TX – A few years ago, a young reporter at a local newspaper wrote an editorial - a very nasty one, full of anger - denouncing unions. I wrote in, asking whether he enjoyed, on his job, an eight-hour day, 40-hour week, overtime, paid holidays, vacations and sick leave, and the like. If so, did he think these came to him and his fellow workers as gifts from benevolent, grateful owners and captains of industry - or because a lot of union members, underpaid and overworked, got their heads bashed in, went to jail, or died, in order to get them?

Military wars are regularly honored by an appreciative nation and exploited by commercial interests and the media. Commercial interests have a large stake in foreign wars, but other than promoting Labor Day sales, they virtually ignore the labor wars. From 1870 through the 1950s, unions battled for wages and benefits now taken for granted by employees, exemplified by the angry young reporter. Where is their parade? We have our Pattons and Eisenhowers, but where is a revered champion of labor?

One should be John P. Altgelt, the Governor of Illinois who in 1893 sacrificed his political life by pardoning the strike organizers arrested in the Haymarket Affair.

On November 11, 1887, the State of Illinois hanged August Spies, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, and Albert Parsons for the deaths of seven policemen at a rally in Chicago?s Haymarket Square supporting the strike against the McCormick farm tool company. One of the strikers threw a bomb, killing the policemen. No one ever knew who threw it, but police whittled 31 usual suspects down to nine. The jury consisted of seven white-collar workers, three businessmen, a salesman and a factory owner - no farm or factory workers, no laborers - hardly a jury of their peers. Newspapers inflamed the anti-immigrant sentiment. Money and jobs were offered to witnesses against the accused.

One escaped, one committed suicide on the day of his execution, and the sentences of two others were commuted to life imprisonment due to the pressure of 200,000 signatures on a petition. After the funerals of Spies, Fischer, Engel, and Parsons, 10,000 supporters followed their coffins to the cemetery and more than 250,000 lined the street.

The famed attorney Clarence Darrow, who was not their lawyer, worked unsuccessfully at first for release of the two remaining. Most citizens believed that supporters of unpopular causes must be guilty of something. But when Altgelt became the new Governor, Darrow persuaded him to grant pardons for them, and for the five who had been executed. Altgelt had a bright political future, but right was important to him - and so he was finished as a public figure.

This Labor Day, will there be television specials honoring American workers? Will anyone remember John P. Altgelt, defender of employees' rights?Well, in his day, they did.

Darrow once wrote of him: "The newspapers, the profiteers, the money-mongers and the Pharisees fought him bitterly, but in the humble dwelling places of the poor, the factories and the mills, among the failures, the misfits and despised, he was worshipped almost as a god. For the maimed and beaten, the sightless and voiceless, he was eyes and ears, and flaming tongue crying in the wilderness for kindness and humanity and understanding."

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.