A common toast among Jews is may you live to 120. 120 being the ripe old age Moshe Rabeinu was when he looked out over the Promised Land without actually getting to enter it. The idea behind the toast is not just may you have the length of years of Moses, but also may those years be filled with some fraction of the knowledge, wisdom, significance, and action Moses had in his life. May our 120 years be lively, just, meaningful years.
During the 120 years of Moses’s life, we were immigrant workers, without rights, working in horrid conditions in return for meager resources. In the same way Pharoah didn’t want to have to dip into his gold reserves to pay us, these modern day Pharoahs would rather exploit people than pay the 2 to 5 dollars more an hour in payroll taxes and health benefits. And just like these workers now, we built that country while yearning to be able to build our own lives.
120 years ago today, workers across the United States and Canada embarked on a national strike to establish the 8 hour work day. Two years prior, in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (fore-runner of the American Federation of Labor), demanded that the work day, anywhere from 10 to 16 hours, be shortened to 8 hours, by May 1st, 1886. They tried negotiation, they tried legislation, but the bosses would not be moved. And so, word began to spread across the US and Canada that May 1st, 1886 would be a general strike for the 8 hour day.
On May 1st, 1886, over 340,000 workers in 12,000 factories across the US put down their tools and walked picket lines.The Knights of Labor didn’t join the call as a whole, but many members joined the strike. The epicenter of this massive strike was (yes, BZ) Chicago,where some 80,000 people, lead by Albert Parsons, head of the Chicago Knights of Labor, marched the streets carrying banners and singing. Unfortunately, in day three of the strike, police officers attacked and murdered two workers and injured more at the McCormick Harvesting Machine plant. A rally was called for Haymarket Square the next day, May 4th, 1886. The rally was peaceful until over 150 police, armed with repeater rifles, marched on the crowd, demanding they disburse. Someone threw a bomb, killing one policeman, and the police opened fire, killing 4 workers and injuring dozens more. While they had absolutely no evidence of who had done it, the city used this to round up union leaders and shut down labor newspapers. The federal government declared martial law, and local governments used this to beat down unions across the country.
Eight different labor leaders, some of whom weren’t even at the rally (Fischer was at a saloon), were tried and convicted. August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, and Oscar Neebe were the labor leaders deemed guilty. Even the Chicago Tribune offered to pay the jury for a guilty verdict. All but Neebe wer sentenced to death. Illinois Governor commuted Fielden and Schwab’s sentences to life in prison after pressure from the international labor community. Lingg blew off his own head with a dynamite cap, and the rest were hung on November 11, 1887. In June of 1893, the new governor of Illinois, John P. Altgeld freed the living men and concluded all 8 were innocent. He condemned the whole trial and judicial system.
On May 1st, 1889, the International Labor Congress chose May 1st as International Labor Day.
I remind everyone about this with a purpose. 120 years ago, many segments of the population opposed the strike and the cause, but their kids and grandkids were able to enjoy the fruits of that struggle while the 8 hour day was slowly implemented over different sectors of work until finally, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act made the 8 hour day the law of the land, with overtime rates for work beyond it. So before you answer your slavish prejudices, think about how these hardworking sisters and brothers contribute to our country, and what building with them will mean for our future generations.
There are too many reasons for you to be out there, supporting the rallies tomorrow:
1) Because it is just.
2) Because you were most likely an immigrant to this country.
3) Because these people make huge contributions to our country.
4) Because they make these contributions under reprehensible conditions.
and, as I talked about over pesach (for myself, and some of the readership)
5) Because we were slaves in the land of Egypt.
for some of the other readership:
6) What you do unto the least of my brethren, you do unto me. (Matthew 25:40)
These are just the first six that come off the top of my head, and its been a long week, but surely I can produce more.
So, now, I put it to you. What have we, as a country, learned and lived in 120 years? Do we have the courage, the strength, the moral fiber to stand up for what is right? Will we march shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers who are our reflection? Or do we, in this length of time equal to one lifetime of Moses, still remain on the outside of the Promised Land, looking in?