Illustration by Whitney Griffith

The invisible power of labor activism

We have always been the ones who propel progress

These days it can be hard to feel hopeful in any sense of the word. We are living through a myriad of crises—devastating climate collapse, a global pandemic, massive income inequality, stark political polarization to the point where even facts and information are not mutually agreed upon, massive inflation, the rise of white nationalism as an animating force in mainstream United States politics, legislative attacks on queer and trans children, the pending reversal of nationwide abortion rights, poisoned municipal water supplies, a lower life expectancy and lower quality of life than recent generations—and on and on and on.


I have personally been undulating between the extremes of righteous anger, lethargic resignation, overwhelming depression and beyond. These feelings are understandable, and many of you can likely relate. Not to sound conspiratorial, but these feelings are also beneficial for the power structures which run our society as our sense of the impossibility of change and the inertia of facing such staggering odds contributes to their entrenchment. 


The Democratic Party tends to capitalize on our fear and anger in the face of so much regression while delivering very little in the way of tangible progress. Optics have subsumed substance as rainbow flags adorn capitals, equity boards offer tokenistic gestures at inclusion, land acknowledgements are intoned before events and business as usual carries on ever unimpinged. 


Much like vultures, the political parties circle grassroots movements and suck the life out of these mobilizations with their promises of reforms if only we will all just temper our ambitions and vote. 


Centrism is touted as some kind of lofty idealized political position when in reality the center is and always has been a position dependent upon the subjugation of the marginalized. This aggrandized center of U.S. politics has been content to support policies of Indigenous genocide, enslavement, segregation, imperialist wars all across the world, patriarchal subjugation of women’s bodies, institutionalized bigotry towards LGBTQ+ people, economic exploitation of workers to line the coffers of the megarich, ecological devastation in the name of profit and the rap sheet could wax on indefinitely. 


So where do we glean hope in this mess as we take cover from the shrapnel of carnage in this collapsing society?


Of course, in one another. It has always been the people on the bottom fighting the hardest to subvert oppression. Pressure upon the powerful is the only proven method of ensuring results in our fights for equity, access, human decency and a life of flourishing for all. Again, the powerful know this, and this is why they do everything in their power to dilute or crush our momentum. 


May Day just passed, and few in the U.S. realize the significance of this day—or how much workers in labor unions fought and sacrificed for rights which we currently take for granted. The eight-hour workday, 40-hour work week, paid time off, workplace compensation for disability, child labor laws—all of these aspects of working life in the U.S. were gained through the militant struggle of workers.


The U.S. government took the side of industry, and massacred workers time after time. These are cases we purposely aren’t taught about, such as the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Coal miners in Colorado faced off against private mercenaries hired by coal companies and supported by the National Guard. Afterward, investigators also found the charred bodies of women and children in the squalid tent camps the workers were living in. 


“Sixty-six men, women, and children had been killed,” stated Howard Zinn, later writing about the massacre. “Not one militiaman or mine guard had been indicted for crime.”


The 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain in Matewan, West Virginia, was another strike where 10,000 miners rose up in defiance of horrendous conditions—they weren’t even paid in currency, but rather company scrip which could only be redeemed at company stores making them essentially dependents of the companies they worked for. 


Estimates placed around 100 people killed, and the strike and the unions were forcibly suppressed.


It is very telling that these important parts of U.S. history are omitted from our history lessons in school, and that most people think of September’s Labor Day—the holiday which was meant to replace May Day—as a time to stop wearing white rather than as a reminder of how much was sacrificed for the betterment of our social predicament.


The end of the enslavement of Black Americans is largely credited to President Abraham Lincoln and his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, while little attention or deference is given to the massive abolition movement which actually forced a nationwide reckoning on the immoral scourge of enslavement.

We’ve heard the names of courageous abolitionists—such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe—but there were countless people building that movement from the ground up with them.


Every struggle has been like this. Countless feminists fought for women’s liberation in the various waves of feminist movements. One of these feminist groups, the Jane Collective, was a Chicago-based women’s health organization that performed over 12,000 safe illegal abortions between 1969 and 1973, many with little to no formal medical training. 


These brave people risked their freedom breaking archaic and unfair laws in order to ensure bodily autonomy. It was only when the Roe v. Wade case was decided, legalizing abortion nationwide, that these individuals were able to escape prosecution for their heroism. 


In the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights, we are just finally starting to acknowledge the massive work that was and has always been done by LGBTQ+ Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). This is especially true of queer activists of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were literally there at the founding of Gay Pride in its initial sparking moment at the 1969 Stonewall Riots—the famous uprising against New York police raids and the nationwide systemic repression of queer people.


These struggles and countless others like these persist and all of them share this quality of coming from the bottom-up. They have all depended upon solidarity amongst communities, vulnerability, risk, trust and love. 


The Civil Rights Movement is a great example of this. How many countless people banded together against segregation? The 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act were only passed because of massive momentum and pressure. The same is true of the New Deal in the 1930s, enacted when the Great Depression and the pressures of militant labor unions forced the U.S. government to make concessions in the interests of the working class. 


There is not the space here to cite all of the examples of grassroots organizing and the results it has yielded. My purpose here is to remind us all of this hidden truth and of its importance. 


We don’t get out of any of the messes we are in without one another. Our struggles are bound together and inseparable. When we remember this we can actually influence change on a massive scale. We are not atomized individuals suffering alone. All of us have our well-being invested in these struggles whether we realize it or not. 


When we organize together, our collective well-being and flourishing are a lot more tangible and the odds no longer appear so insurmountable. Reach out to your peers and your broader community—and you will find we can do anything when we do it together.