When the Strike First Struck Austin

September 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

Today is Labor Day. In the words of the United States Department of Labor, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

A rather hollow tribute, given the pitiful state of the minimum wage and the growing gap between the have-a-littles and the have-a-lots.

The Blunderbuss first took this potshot at Texas’ prevailing right-to-starve — excuse me, right-to-work — philosophy three years ago. And as Pathos and Squalor Week winds down, it’s an appropriate time to briefly recount the story of Austin’s first recorded strike.

In much of the rest of the world, May 1 is celebrated as Labor Day/International Workers Day, but the September date was chosen here because after the Haymarket Massacre, President Grover Cleveland feared that observance of the May 1 date would be associated with the nascent Communist, Syndicalist and Anarchist movements that, although distinct from one another, had rallied to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre on International Workers’ Day and that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 could become an opportunity to commemorate the bloodbath.

048The Haymarket Massacre refers to the aftermath of a bombing that took place at a labor demonstration on Tuesday May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago. It began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they were in the process of busting up (as in workers’ heads) the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; scores of others were wounded. Eight men were arrested and convicted of conspiracy. Amid great controversy, four men were hanged, one suicided, two were pardoned. The actual bomber was never definitively identified and brought to trial.

They would not be the only to swing in the name of workers’ rights.

And so, in 1887, the September date was chosen as a sop to the American working class, in lieu of livable wages and anything less than the six-day work week and sunup to sundown work day. Something vaguely akin to Rome’s Saturnalia, when Roman social norms were overturned and masters provided table service to their slaves, except that Saturnalia lasted a week instead of a day, and all the American worker got in the way of deferential treatment was the chance to parade and picnic at their own expense.

God still help you if dared to strike for the right to live something less than a slave-like existence.

I do not known when Austin first celebrated Labor Day, but I can fill you in on the details of when the strike first came to Guy Town and the rest of Austin, courtesy of the Austin Statesman.

August 7, 1877:

“The strike has struck Austin, the first demonstration being made yesterday
morning about 7 o’clock by about 50 negroes. They first visited in a body a gang of black men at work back of the capitol laying down pipe for the city water company, compelling the men to lay down their tools and quit work. They also made some demonstrations towards breaking up the tools, but the appearance of officers prevented that. The strikers then separated in three or four parties, and it was thought the strike was over, but in the course of an hour they re-assembled down in Mexico [Guytown], where they were joined by a few more negroes and a number of Mexicans. They then visited the brick yards and notified the men at work to quit, unless their wages were raised from $1.25 to $1.50 a day. They also visited the men at work on Bahn’s building and Webb and Bros.’ building and notified them to quit work, which a few did.

“During the afternoon the blacks held a meeting on Robertson Hill, and reports got current that 400 were present, but after diligent inquiry, the reporter ascertained that scarcely 100 were in attendance. They resolved at the meeting that they would stand out for $1.50 a day, and pledged themselves to stick together in not allowing any colored laborer to work for less than that price. Quite a large gathering of them assembled last night at the crossing of Pecan street, and the Avenue, where they asserted freely that they would not allow any black man to work for less then $1.50 a day. Some of those who were doing the most talking were men who have long been regarded as loafers, while others were men belonging to the more industrious class. As yet the strike in Austin is a mere farce, but whether it can assume more formidable proportions would be hard to tell.”

So far as I know, no deaths or other violence resulted. Other Texas strikes would not end so benignly.

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