Our History of Labor: Strike One! Strike Two!

Exhibit from the earliest factory strike in America, Rhode Island 1824

I suspect many of us are enjoying this three-day weekend: Labor Day, Back to School, End of Summer, Back to Work. Of course, many kids have already gone to school–or some semblance of it, with masks and shortened days–and those who work have probably been doing so and will continue. But any time’s the right time for a Holiday, isn’t it?

The focus of this holiday has always been barbecues and the last little celebration before the chill of autumn begins. Yet, unlike Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas, there’s rarely a thought given to the reason the day itself. Let’s change that.

Let’s talk about Labor.

Picture from UFCW.org celebrating Labor Day

If you remember your high school American History — or if you google it — the late 1880s always pops up as the “birth” of Labor Movement. This is both true and false. America, like other places with expanding factories and machines in the late 19th century, saw a rise in demands for better treatment of workers. But demands didn’t spring out of nowhere in 1886, the date of the first government-sanctioned Labor Day. History did not begin in 1886. Worker demands go back further than that.

Re-Balancing the Ma’at

The very, very, very first strike in history can be traced all the way back to 1159. That’s 1159 BCE, during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III in Thebes, the capital of ancient Egypt. This pharaoh was not the big dog–Ramses II–also known as the Great or Yul Brynner. But Ramses III still wanted to be Pretty Great, so he kept up the tradition of hosting large armies, feeding people, and building monuments. After he’d been pharaoh for a few decades, even though Egypt had being besieged by the Sea Peoples and gone through a few famines, he decided to plan a giant celebration for his 30-year jubilee, naturally including tomb-building and pavilion-constructing.

The trouble started among the workers who lived in Deir el-Medina, the planned community for the workers who built said tombs and pavilions in the nearby Valley of the Kings. Their payment, i.e. food, was late and growing later. Local officials decided to ignore their griping and simply accelerated the jubilee-planning. At one point, they bought them pastries, according to worldhistory.org, which is kind of like, Oh, you’re starving? Here’s a donut… It didn’t go over well. The workers took over granaries, staged sit-ins, and even blocked access to the tombs, which prevented the priests from bringing in offerings to the dead. Very Big Deal!

Deir el-Medina, the city of tomb workers. Photo from the World History Encyclopedia.

The issue was that starving workers was considered a serious breach of maat, the Egyptian notion that while the pharaoh had divinely-imubed supreme power, he also was responsible for his people. The ruler was supposed to ensure they were fed. Thus, one interpretation of this first strike was that the workers were restoring ma’at, bringing to light the imbalance of policies that created disharmony. The strike was successful, and balance was restored without any chanting, yoga, or harmonic convergences.

Secession of the Plebes

While we often think of work done in ancient lands by slaves, most workers were ordinary men. Whether artisans or peasants, merchants or builders, the large populations in Egypt, Rome, or China were neither slaves nor aristocrats but freemen, albeit in the lower classes. In Rome, these were the plebeians, a rank far below the patricians. The patricians set their taxes. The plebeians noticed, as well as noticing that there were a lot more plebeians than patricians. This led to broad plebeian marches to the capitol, designated as secessio plebis–the secession of the plebes.

The plebes march en masse, photo from History Daily.

In 494 BCE, for example, an enterprising plebeian named Lucius Sicinius Vitellus convinced a large number of his colleagues to wander off the job and hang out at Mons Sacer while he negotiated with the senate. Vitellus was successful, and a large portion of the plebeian debt was erased as well as the creation of a Tribune of the Plebs. There were four more secessions over the next couple of centuries until eventually a law was enacted (Lex Hortensia) which eliminated the difference in laws between the upper and lower classes. The key for the plebeians was knowing that they had the numbers on the patricians, plus a great number of them had been soldiers. It was an obvious lesson that the patricians would learn: don’t piss off the veterans.

Lessons from Wat Tyler

There was a similar uprising in medieval British history, one which I’ve covered before. The Peasant’s Rebellion, spearheaded by Wat Tyler, was a mass march of the farmers to London, to protest high taxes. There’d been a bit of plague going around, which had lowered the numbers available to produce food. In this case the workers didn’t have high numbers, and that was good, because it meant they were in demand. Nobility can’t be joustin’ if they’re not eatin’.

Tyler’s group marched to meet with teenage King Richard and negotiate. It was successful for a while, but there was an alleged mouth-rising/spitting incident aimed at the king, plus a bunch of guards massacred at the Tower. In the end, the peasants weren’t very well armed, while Richard’s entourage was. It ended up less of a successful strike and more of a go-home-before-we-ride-you-down-on-horseback affair. However, the nobility did not enact another high poll tax for a few centuries, so something worked!

The Poles Who Preceded the Pilgrims

The Jamestown settlement of 1607 was the first English colony in the New World, notorious in part because most didn’t survive past the first year. However, the colony persevered and grew, a little, as well as encouraging immigration from non-Englishmen. In particular, John Smith had been impressed when he had observed craftsmen in an earlier visit to Poland.

According to the memoirs of Zbigniew Stefanski, these craftsmen brought in by Smith included glassblowers who helped the colony grow food, saved Smith from peril, established the first official industry, and — you guessed it– staged the first strike in America in 1619. The problem was that as the first elections were held in that year, those from the continent, i.e. those not from the little island known as Anglo-land, were not allowed to vote. The fifty Poles, who were by then helping install windows and aluminum siding, weren’t happy. Their strike was successful in getting the fledgling Virginia Company Council to reverse their decision and allow “forreiners” to vote.

Along with bringing the seeds of collective bargaining, the Poles also brought Catholicism–establishing that the colonies might tolerate multiple religions (at least before the Puritans showed up). And:

Zbigniew Stefanski of Wrocław …wrote: ‘Soon after the new year, I, Sadowski, Mata, Mientus, Stoika and Zrenica initiated a ball game played with a bat… Most often, we played this game on Sundays. We rolled rags to make the balls… Our game even attracted the savages who sat around the field, delighted with this Polish sport’.

So there you have it. The Poles brought to America the support for labor rights, freedom of religion, and the Great American Pastime: palant, the precursor to baseball.

“The Poles in Jamestown” by Arthur Szyk, chopping wood and taking batting practice.

Mother of Textile Strikes

While Polish immigrants led the way in American labor strikes, the very first factory strike was initiated by the other oft-mistreated group of laborers: women. By 1824, lots of factories had been built, and plenty were booming in the northern U.S. In Pawtucket, Rhode Island, there was a loom factory that employed a number of women. The mill owners decided to cut the women’s wages by 25%. This led the women to strike, not only at Slater Mill, but at the other seven mills.

The “mill girls” typically of the Slater Mill. Photo from the New England Historical Society.

In prior versions of Samuel Slater’s Rhode Island System, the machinery was simple, and he had used the cheapest labor source available–children. However, once the machinery became more sophisticated, he required a more dexterous worker. Slater discovered that the next cheapest labor source–women–weren’t as tractable. The women banded together quickly, and the mill owners caved within a week.

Wages were restored, though managers employed even more draconian measures, and began engaging local police and hiring their own security to crack down. This became something of a cycle. Enforcement and crackdown depressed the labor movement, but the increasing use of factories and growth of worker populations broadened their reach. Early on, American courts deemed some of these “union” groups illegal, but they were eventually allowed. By the 1870s and 1880s, labor federations and unions began to amass large numbers, and they voted.

That’s where most U.S. history books begin, with stories about the Knights of Labor, the AFL, CIO, Grover Cleveland, and Haymarket Square. However, the women in Rhode Island, the Poles in Jamestown, the peasants at the Tower of London, the plebeians marching on the Roman Senate, and the tomb workers in Deir al-Median had all learned the lesson first. There is strength in numbers.

What do we want? A Rebalance of Ma’at! When do we want it? Now!

Afterwards, we can play a little palant.

From Culture.pl.

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