Fighting For Our Own: Working-Class Resistance in Appalachia and the South

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Jeremy K. Galloway
toward an anarchist appalachia

Birth of the US Labor Movement

International Workers Day (May Day) is a celebration of worker contributions to our society and the struggles of past workers who fought, and sacrificed their lives, for many of the benefits we enjoy today. May Day is a national holiday in many countries and is especially associated with Communist states like the Soviet Union and Cuba. Many US workers, however, don’t realize the holiday’s origins are firmly rooted in the labor struggles of our own country.

The history of the US labor movement, which won the eight-hour day, an end to child labor, the right to organize, weekends, overtime pay, and much more (note: some workers today still don’t have enjoy many of these benefits), is often associated with factory workers in urban areas like Boston, New York, Detroit, and Chicago. Occasionally rural coal miners are lumped in, but the struggles and contributions of workers in the South, especially the rural South, are often ignored. The South, even in conservative regions like northern Alabama, North Georgia, and Upstate South Carolina, have their own history of militant labor activity and resistance.

This is the first in a three-part series on radical labor struggles and the fight for liberation in the South and Southern Appalachia. Obviously it can’t cover every issue in detail, but we will look at a broad range of important events that transcend racial, gender, and cultural boundaries. The first part covers the legacy of May Day and radical labor history in the South.

A Brief History of May Day

May Day began with the fight by workers for an eight-hour work day. Its origins date back to 1886, when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) issued a proclamation that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” At the time most workers, especially those involved in manufacturing and heavy industry, were expected to put in at least 10 and as many as 16 hours. Child labor was frequently used for some of the more dangerous jobs.

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