#212: Labor’s Love Lost

September 4th, 2013

They clambered over each other to lift the speaker.

Faceless, identity-free, the blocky brown figures held together the cart, hoisting boxes, planks and wheels with mismatched spokes, using their own bodies to fill gaps and shove the speaker up against an empty sky.

The speaker too was faceless, blocky. He had no hold on or identity over the others striving to raise him. He just had the speech in his hand. That was his role to fill. That was his eternal job at the memorial to the workers massacre.

A man and a woman were reading the description on the statue’s base when I rode up.

They slowly circled the memorial, learning what happened at that spot on May 4, 1886, about the dynamite bomb heaved at police officers there to bust up a union rally, about the officers turning their guns on the crowd, about the men tried and convicted on trumped-up charges. The bomb was a good excuse to swing some anarchists.

It was the Haymarket massacre. Four protestors were hanged, three were later pardoned by a new governor critical of the sham. One killed himself in prison by biting into a blasting cap and blowing away a portion of his head. He didn’t die for six hours.

The description at the base of the statue omitted that bit.

Haymarket was also an early turning point in the American labor movement. Along with a few other events — the Pullman strike that started on Chicago’s South Side in 1894, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 — the Haymarket massacre of 1886 led workers across the nation to unite under the simple, human notion that if we work together, it doesn’t have to be like this.

We laugh and joke, use snarky charts to talk about how bad things still are (and they are), but the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2012 American Time Use Survey issued this summer reports full-time workers work an average 8.22 hours a day.

The eight-hour day. We get that from them.

Things still aren’t great for the worker, getting worse in a lot of ways. The U.S. Census Bureau reported last year that household income inequality in the U.S. had jumped 18 percent since 1967. Nearly half that took place in the 1980s, when even the language used in economic policy implied pissing on the poor.

The real value of the minimum wage has gone up 21 percent since 1990, Mother Jones reported this week. The cost of living has gone up 67 percent in that time.

I got a burger July 4 from a woman who still had to go to her second job after this shift.

No, it’s bad. I get that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the successes we do have. The eight-hour day. Increased safety standards. And, what the hell, a day off in September for beaches and barbecues.

And for checking out statues commemorating massacres at labor rallies.

I don’t mean to imply that this lonely statue along Des Plaines Street, watching the passersby and watched itself by a two-story billboard featuring Christina Applegate for Coca-Cola’s Fruitwater, is the only way people honored the workers that Labor Day.

They had a rally in Grant Park that morning. I didn’t go. Throughout the city and the country, people were honoring the day, remembering the people who got us here. Maybe it was a Facebook grump with a surly message that it’s not about barbecues. Maybe it was some snark to a too-happy kid out of school.

Yes, the majority of the day was about barbecues and no longer wearing white, summer ending and the gubernatorial candidates lining up. Beach advisory warnings. But the nation was also full of nags, posts, reminders — the union home equivalent of “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

Abused workers are the reason for the season.

A woman walked by as I gaped at the blocky workers holding together the cart in the statue. With workout pants, earbuds, a strap around her leg to hold valuables and a slick patina of sweat, she looked out for a jog on a day off of work.

She looked at me and smiled.

“Apropos to be here today,” she said to me, giving a nod as she wandered on.

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