In May of 1886, Chicago’s industrial workers called a general strike in an ongoing struggle for “an 8-hour day with no cut in pay.” Importantly, a sizable anarchist and immigrant contingent of workers comprised the labor movement during this time, and several were killed by the police who served as protectors of the propertied rich. At Haymarket Square in Chicago, during the May 4th mobilization, an unidentified person threw a bomb at police in retaliation for their killing of protesters on May 1. Haymarket anarchists received a dubious trial, were hanged or imprisoned for conspiracy, and remain forever Martyrs of the labor movement.
Today, May 1 is recognized as international workers day in close to 100 countries, and is commonly celebrated in struggle through general strikes and invigorated labor activism. May Day, as it is known, has also been linked to immigrant solidarity, and continues to face police repression as it did in 1886. Such was the case on May 1, 2007, when the LAPD indiscriminately attacked immigrant workers’ rights demonstrators with rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons. More currently, with the repression of Black Lives Matter, some have noted the historical role of police as enforcers of the status quo. This past July, United Auto Workers 2865, representing University of California student workers, rightfully called on the AFL-CIO to break its affiliation with police unions. Similarly, the historical exploitation of racial difference by anti-union bosses has been undermined by unions, as on May 1 of this year, when Longshoremen shut down the port of Oakland in support of Black Lives Matter.
So then, why is Labor Day held in September if such critical historical moments in worker history occurred in May? It was precisely to redirect labor militancy and appease anger over military and police repression of labor that Congress and President Cleveland enacted Labor Day in 1894. Fearing the power of organized labor and the emerging influence of socialism among the working classes, Labor Day redirected the rationale of a labor movement towards service to the Economy while avoiding concessions to the radical vision embodied by the labor movement.
With Labor Day enacted, protests and worker struggles were shunted aside in favor of depoliticized parades and retail sales events. The ideals of international brother-and-sisterhood and dignified labor were replaced with narratives of “hard work”.
Today, labor history and the Haymarket Affair may occupy 3 inches of a civics textbook, and thus, students generally do not identify as members of the working class. Meanwhile, the vast majority of youth will be primed to enter the service economy – in food service or retail for example – while migrant laborers work the pesticide-laden farmlands or as domestic workers. For them, unlivable wages and job insecurity do not allow the luxury of a Labor Day holiday.
Rather than an celebrate an ahistorical Labor Day with excessive retail consumption and meaningless pageantry, let’s claim Labor Day to advance popular education of labor history, critical reflection of our socio-economic realities, international solidarity, kindness, and the spirit of human development. Those of us “fortunate” enough to possess stable work should not look down on those who occupy the indigent and migrant worker classes and who are scapegoated for the cumulative economic and environmental crises of late stage capitalism.
Those of us in trade unions should be vigilant against our unions mirroring corporate hierarchies, and against membership raids on smaller, more autonomous unions. We should also be wary of our support for “The Party of the Working Class,” in America if that support will result in economic and military domination of the international working classes. Our quality of life should not come at the expense of the international working class, whose oppressive work conditions are used as example of why we should “be happy for what we have,” as if the immiseration of others should make us feel grateful for our less-severe exploitation.
Another world is possible and necessary, and though some say it is unrealistic, for most of us it is no more out of reach than the American Dream – but a cause more noble.