The Workers Big Labor Forgot

With the passing of “Labor Day” earlier this month it’s useful to reflect upon its origins and the state of the labor movement as it stands today.

First celebrated on Sept. 5, 1882 in New York City by members of the Central Labor Union, a branch of the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor with a parade, it coincided with a Knights of Labor conference being held nearby. Members of the CLU were required to march in the protest which was in favor of the 8 hour workday or be fined by the union as a consequence, in an authoritarian move that strained the relationship between rank-and-file union members and the union bosses.

The CLU continued to hold celebrations of the sort annually, at first on the exact anniversary, but eventually moving it to the more familiar first Monday of September. Oregon became the first state to officially declare the annual event a state holiday in 1887, with Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York following soon after.

It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Pullman strike in 1894 that President Grover Cleveland and his ilk established Labor Day as an official federal holiday in an attempt to appease the labor movement with a false symbol of progress. Out of fear that holding Labor Day on May 1st, as it had been and continues to be celebrated around the world in remembrance of the Haymarket affair of 1886, would strengthen the communist and anarchist elements of the labor movement, Grover chose the first Monday of September, a move backed by the CLU.

From its origins, Labor Day stands as a slap in the face to the truly radical labor movement. Founded by an authoritarian union and officialized as a move to suppress the libertarian and communist elements, Labor Day stands as a stark reminder of the cooperation between corporate interests, state power, and big labor against the rank-and-file of the working class. As the union bosses climbed the social-political ladder and formed alliances with those in power, those with more radical politics were effectively abandoned by many of the big unions.

In today’s labor movement, the big unions and their leaders still have yet to truly stand with the working class. Currently one of the biggest waves of organizing amongst incarcerated workers within prisons is making significant progress, winning demands in Texas and other places and leading up to a coordinated general prison labor strike that began on Friday, September 9th, the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising. Their demands are varied from prison to prison but one call remains the same: to end prisoner slavery as made legal by the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, which states:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

That’s right, the myth that slavery was ended by the 13th amendment is blatantly false. Because of this prisoners are paid a few cents, or in many states nothing, as compensation for their forced labor. With this scheme, business owners are able to profit off the use of slave labor without the social stigma present in traditional chattel slavery. Even when individual states have enacted a minimum wage for inmates, it’s never over a few cents an hour making it next to impossible for prisoners to pay for their necessary expenses, such as hygiene products, food, and medical care, without outside help.

Even with the minimal cost of paying those prisoners who are required to be compensated under law, it is actually cheaper than traditional slavery. Under the old model, a slaveowner would have to pay for all of the slave’s expenses themselves. Under the current model, the bill falls on the taxpayers while the businesses benefiting from the slave labor merely pay a few cents per slave at most. The government, like the highwayman, holds us a gunpoint and forces us to pay for their corporate slavery scheme while their lackies lock up the poor and people of color for increasingly petty crimes.

But now the slaves are revolting and big labor is nowhere to be found. In fact prisoners and even ex-convicts, unlike the anarchist or the communist who can disguise their politics in unfriendly territory, are not even allowed membership into big labor. Currently the only union in the U.S. that actually accepts their membership is the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW not only accepts their membership but actively recruits inmates, waiving their dues entirely, and helps them to establish union branches inside prison facilities and offering outside support in their campaigns. The IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has been the driving force for unionized prison labor. Outside of the IWW, the unions have left them in the cold. In the vacuum created by their noticeable absence, non-union worker solidarity groups, alt labor organizations, prisoner rights groups, anti-racist groups, and even environmentalist groups have stepped up to the plate, offering solidarity and support to those who need it. According to, there were over 50 planned solidarity demonstrations across the nation on the 9th and 10th drawing attention to and showing support for the strike.

While big labor works to protect its membership only, working with corporate and state interests to obtain their goals, others on the fringes of the labor movement still hold onto the idea that this fight is for the working class as a whole. A class which includes communists, anarchists, and yes, even convicts. So I urge you in reflection of Labor Day to fight back against big labor and extend solidarity to the whole of the working class. Plan a solidarity event in your area and let the media know that inmate workers have outside support.

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