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This is a travel topic concerned with the history of modern industrial labor as it emerged in the late 18th, early 19th century with the development of steam power and industrialization and the fight of laborers for the right to strike, the eight hour work day, political participation and numerous other advances. While the Soviet Union for seven decades claimed to be "the homeland of the world proletariat", the history of labor has often been ignored, forgotten or deliberately erased by the ruling classes. Who for example knows why May 1st is "Labor Day" in most of the world – but not in the one country where the event that set that date occurred: the U.S. Who knows that "redneck", now a slur for poor rural white Southerners, originally referred to striking workers wearing red neckerchiefs and fighting against the hired goons of their bosses. That said, many sites of the history of labor are preserved in some ways and can be visited.


Map of History of organized labor

Strikes, revolts and other labor conflicts have been known since at least ancient Egypt. However, before the Industrial Revolution, most people lived in the countryside without formal education, with very few opportunities to organize. Well into the 19th century, many of the world's countries had slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude or other legal systems which limited civil rights for much of the population. Even many workers who were formally free citizens, were in practice at a landowner's mercy.

The first modern labor movements appeared in industrial Britain. Small children were employed in factories and accidents which cost workers life and limb were daily occurrences. Virtually all advances in rights for laborers were hard fought for and won with the blood, sweat and tears of working men and women and sometimes children. During the early industrialization many people fled the rampant rural poverty (or as in England, the "enclosure" phenomenon, which removed the Commons from the access of normal people by putting it under private ownership) into the burgeoning urban centers for hope of a better life, only to find starvation wages, unsanitary conditions in slums, excessive rents and disease, malnutrition and generally unacceptable conditions. It was these conditions, sometimes called "Manchester capitalism" that inspired the German factory owner's son Friedrich Engels to write "On the State of the Working Classes in England", an indictment of the horrific conditions under which laborers had to toil. His friend Karl Marx meanwhile began developing a system of critique of capitalism which he laid out in his magnum opus Das Kapital which Engels edited and published after the death of his friend. Inspired by Engels and Marx but also by their horrific conditions, millions of workers started joining unions and Worker's Parties to advocate for better treatment, better wages and more political influence. The response of the powers that be mostly consisted of repression, and many strikes were broken up by force – both of official police and "private security forces" hired by the bosses. However, some capitalists recognized that treating their workers slightly better would decrease the likelihood of strikes, rebellions and uprisings. In Germany the military-industrial company Krupp started building "ideal communities" to house its workers and pay above average salaries, while at the same time ruthlessly cracking down on unions, Social Democracy and any open discontent. Reactionary politicians like Bismarck employed "carrot and stick" policies like cracking down on Social Democracy (including "apolitical" worker's clubs whose official purpose was sports or singing, but which were used for political agitation), while at the same time instituting the beginnings of the modern social safety net, namely old age pensions, health insurance and accident insurance for workers. In 1871 in the course of the disastrous war Napoleon III had started against a Prussian-led alliance, the people of Paris rose up against the Bourgeois Republic and the remnants of the Empire alike, forming the "Paris Commune", which was crushed with the collaboration of Republican forces led by Adolphe Thiers and the tacit approval of the Prussians. This was the first attempt at a proletarian revolution and the only one during the lifetime of Marx and Engels. Marx subsequently wrote a book critiquing the Paris Commune and outlining what they could have done to avoid being crushed.

Marx and Engels' ideals, called communism, envisioned a classless society in which the workers owned the means of production, and where everybody worked for the good of the community as a whole and received equal pay. The Russian Revolution in 1917 would lead to the establishment of the Soviet Union as the world's first state claiming to be on a path towards communism, and this system of government was later exported to other countries such as those in eastern Europe, as well as some other countries like Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia and North Korea. Neither the Soviet Union nor any of the other communist countries got anywhere close to achieving Marx and Engels' vision, and by the 1990s, communism was largely abandoned as a system of government. Most of the few remaining nominally communist countries are more or less capitalist in practice. However, many of the reforms Marx and Engels suggested for an intermediate and transitional "socialism" stage between capitalism and communism were adopted by socialist/labor and some other parties in the 20th century and are maintained to a lesser or greater extent in the many countries that have strong social safety nets and protections for workers and the poor.

Religion has had different roles in organized labour. While Christian socialism had its heyday around 1900 and some unions had a Christian philosophy, Marx rejected religion as an "opium for the masses", and many of the communist parties were nominally non-religious or anti-religious, at the same time creating a cult of personality around a living or deceased leader.

Labor Day[edit]

Many countries have a national holiday for organized labor. In most countries it is May 1st (coinciding with some European spring festivals). In the United States, Labor Day is the first Monday in September.


  • 1 Haymarket Martyrs' Monument (Chicago, United States). Dedicated to those sentenced to death and executed due to their alleged involvement in the "Haymarket Affair" which is officially commemorated as Labour Day on May 1st in many countries, but not in the United States. Haymarket Martyrs' Monument (Q4132855) on Wikidata Haymarket Martyrs' Monument on Wikipedia
  • 2 Communards' Wall (Mur des Fédérés) (Paris, France). The wall against which 174 fighters for the Paris Commune were lined up to be shot by the victorious forces of reaction that had crushed the Commune. Communards' Wall (Q910923) on Wikidata Communards' Wall on Wikipedia
  • 3 Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, Dorchester Road, Tolpuddle, Dorset, DT2 7EH (England), +44 1305 848 237. April to October: Tues-Sun: 1100-1700; Closed Mondays. A museum charting the history of the Tolpuddle martyrs and their struggle for labour rights in the early 19th century
  • 4 Former Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (New York City, United States). Site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, New York City's worst ever industrial disaster. The disaster led to a major overhaul of industrial fire safety regulations in the state. While the factory is no more, the building still stands and is today owned by New York University, thus making the interior inaccessible to the public. However, there is a plaque commemorating the fire on the building's exterior.
  • 5 Arbetets Museum (The museum of work), Laxholmen (Norrköping, Sweden). Worth a visit, as is the surrounding Industrilandskapet/Strykjärnet area with a concert hall, a science park, a tourist center, a church, other museums, an art school, some space owned by the university and a lovely waterfall. Museum of Work (Q6941060) on Wikidata Museum of Work on Wikipedia
  • 6 Joe Hill Museum, Nedre Bergsgatan 28 (Gävle, Sweden). This was the birthplace in 1879 of Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, better known as Joe Hill. In 1902 he emigrated to the USA, where he became a labor organizer, song-writer and activist for "Industrial Workers of the World", the "Wobblies". In 1914 a Salt Lake City grocer and his son were shot dead by two intruders; Joe Hill came to a local doctor that evening with a gunshot wound to his chest. He was eventually convicted of the murder, and executed by firing squad in Nov 1915. The prosecution case was shaky and his many supporters believed he was shot for being a "wobbly", but his refusal to convincingly explain his wound sealed his fate.
  • 7 Karl-Marx-Haus, Brückenstraße 10 (Trier, Germany). Birthplace of Karl Marx, one of the pioneers of the labour movement, and whose writings formed much of the basis of communist and socialist philosophy.
  • 8 Engels Haus, Engelsstraße 10 (Wuppertal, Germany). The house where Karl Marx's friend and fellow labour rights activist Friedrich Engels grew up in, though he was not born in the house (his birth home was located about 100m away and did not survive World War II). It is now a museum dedicated to the life of Engels, and a popular pilgrimage destination for socialists. Friedrich Engels House (Q1110485) on Wikidata Engels-Haus on Wikipedia
  • 9 National Civil Rights Museum (Lorraine Motel), 450 Mulberry St (Memphis, Tennessee, United States). The museum was built out of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Although better known for his role in the Civil Rights movement that secured equal rights for African-Americans at least on paper, King was also a vociferous supporter of the labour movement who saw the two movements as natural allies, and sought to build bridges between them. King was in Memphis to show support for African-American sanitation workers who were on strike to demand better pay and safer working conditions at the time of his assassination. National Civil Rights Museum (Q845216) on Wikidata National Civil Rights Museum on Wikipedia
  • 10 Broken Hill Trades Hall, 450 Mulberry St (Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia). A beautiful Victorian building that was built to house the trade unions in the silver mining town of Broken Hill. Many of the most important battles for the labour rights of Australian miners were fought and won within its halls, perhaps the most significant of which was the 35-hour work week for miners that was secured in 1921 after an 18-month-long strike. Broken Hill Trades Hall (Q55606000) on Wikidata Broken Hill Trades Hall on Wikipedia

See also[edit]

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