It dates from America's 19th Century industrial expansion when workers moved away from farms to factories, mines, and other urban environments, with harsh working conditions, low pay, and other exploitive abuses. As a result, labor movements emerged, organizing workers to lobby for better rights and safer conditions, pitting them against corporate bosses yielding nothing without a fight.
During unionism's formative years, workers were terrorized for organizing. In company-owned towns, they were thrown out of homes, beaten, shot, and hanged to leave management empowered.
The 1892 Homestead Steel Works strike culminated in a violent battle between Pinkerton agents and workers. As a result, seven were killed, dozens wounded, and, at the behest of Andrew Carnegie, owner of Carnegie Steel, Governor Robert Pattison sent National Guard troops to evict workers from company homes, make arrests, and help CEO Henry Clay Frick's union busting strategy. It worked, preventing organizing of the Works for the next 40 years.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions chose May 1, 1886 as the date for an eight-hour work day to become standard. As the date approached, unions across America prepared to strike. On May 1, national rallies were held, involving up to 500,000 workers.
On May 4, the landmark Haymarket Square riot protested police violence against strikers the previous day. Someone threw a bomb. Police opened fire. Deaths resulted. Seven so-called anarchists were convicted of murder. Four were executed.
Radicalized by the incident, Emma Goldman became a powerful social justice voice through writing, lecturing, being imprisoned for her activism, and finally emigrating to Russia after its revolution, then elsewhere in Europe. After her death, she was buried in Chicago near the graves of the Haymarket radicals she supported.
Led by American Railway Union's Eugene Debs, the 1894 Pullman strike was the first national one, involving 250,000 workers in 27 states and territories. America's entire rail labor force struck, paralyzing the nation's railway system. At the time, the New York Times called it "a struggle between the greatest and most important labor organization and the entire railroad capital."
At issue were unfair labor practices, including long hours, low pay, poor working conditions, and little sympathy from owner George Pullman. On his behalf, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops. Hundreds of others were given police powers. At the time, unionists were seen threatening US prosperity.
The strike was broken, killing 13, wounding dozens and resulting in Debs' arrest, trial, conviction for violating a court injunction, and imprisonment for six months. Radicalized by the experience, he became America's leading socialist figure when released, later running five times for president, in 1920 while again in prison for opposing US involvement in WW I.
Founded in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) had 100,000 members at its peak in the 1920s. Led by Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, and others, it was committed to help workers against abusive management practices. It's motto was "an injury to one is an injury to all." It's goal was revolutionary, saying in its Constitution:
"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people. (The) struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the (unfair) wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth....It is the mission of the working class to do away with capitalism (for) a new society within the shell of the old."
As a result, corporate bosses and Washington sought to crush it. In 1917, the Wilson administration used the Espionage and Sedition Act to raid and disrupt union meetings across the country, arresting hundreds on the grounds that they hindered the war effort by opposing it. In 1918, they were tried, convicted and given long sentences, except Haywood. Released on bail after conviction, he fled to Russia where he remained.
From 1918 - 21, the infamous Palmer Raids ravaged the union further during the time of the first Red Scare, effectively busting it, though it's still around, a shadow of its former self. Visit its web site at iww.org to follow their latest activities, including comments on class warfare in Wisconsin.
In the early 20th century, Colorado labor wars raged, notably pitting mine bosses, National Guard troops, and strikebreakers against workers. In his People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn wrote poignantly about the 1913-14 Ludlow, Colorado coal strike and subsequent massacre, killing 75 or more strikers, strikebreakers, and bystanders for defying what he called "fuedal kingdoms run by (coal barons that) made the laws," imposed curfews, and ran their operations more like despots than businessmen.