Samuel Gompers, a Dutch Jewish cigarmaker newly elected as head of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (soon to become the American Federation of Labor), led a one-day general strike of more than 200,000 workers across the country to demand the eight-hour working day. The one-day strike sparked more and more strike actions until some 340,000 workers in 11,000 businesses were involved. Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Detroit, and other cities all saw labor rallies on May 1st. Three days later, during a rally against police brutality in Haymarket Square, Chicago, a bomb was thrown at police, leading to rioting and the conviction and hanging of four anarchists. In 1890, again on May 1st, the AFL selected one of its constituent unions, the Carpenters and Joiners, to conduct a nationwide strike. More than 23,000 carpenters in 36 cities won the eight-hour day. Under Gompers’ leadership, May Day became a strike day well into the 20th century.
“The man who has his millions will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants ten cents more a day.”—Samuel Gompers
Six thousand members of the Dress and Cloak Makers Union in New York, most of them recent immigrants, went out on strike against eleven clothing manufacturers on this date in 1886 in protest of the contracting system. Finishers, buttonhole makers, and cutters soon joined the strike, which swelled to 9,000 by April 2. Their central demand was that manufacturers hire them directly rather than through contractors and subcontractors. Demand was slack in the industry, however, and the strike did not have devastating impact upon the firms, which gained the upper hand. By April 15th the strike was called off. More successful cloakmaker campaigns would follow in 1890 and 1894 — but 1886 was especially a year of nationwide labor unrest, as craft unions, independent unions, and the Knights of Labor agitated for an eight-hour day. “It was the very dawning of the day when the term ‘dignity of labor’ meant something,” wrote a historian from that time, George E. McNeil. “Laboring men [sic] who had heretofore considered themselves as scarcely more than serfs, without rights or privileges . . . seemed to be inspired with a new spirit.”
“Shirt ironers held a dance to raise funds for a cooperative shop in 1886 after their efforts to improve working conditions were unsuccessful. . . . In 1890, when 800 members of the Pantsmakers Union faced a lockout by the Contractors Association, they established a cooperative to provide temporary employment.” —Ronald Mendel, “A Broad and Ennobling Spirit”: Workers and Their Unions in the Late Gilded Age.
The Women’s Trade Union League was founded in Boston on this date in 1903 during the annual convention of the American Federation of Labor. Led in part by Lillian Wald, the organization brought together wealthy and middle-class women of the settlement house movement and working-class women active in the labor movement, and focused both on labor justice and on the empowerment of women. New York’s branch of the WTUL played a crucial role in the 1909 Uprising of the Twenty Thousand, when its members joined the picket lines of the striking garment workers, bailed them out of jail, organized legal aid services, and publicized the strike as a just cause nationwide. The WTUL also challenged the labor movement’s sexism from within and moved the AFL to support the 19th Amendment (women’s suffrage). Rose Schneiderman would serve as the WTUL’s national president from 1926 until 1950, when the organization dissolved.
“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.” —Rose Schneiderman