If you have ever needed more proof of how the American Labor Movement has declined and how disconnected the average American worker is from its legacy, simply say, “Happy Labor Day!” on May 1st to just about anyone, and the confused look on their face will say it all.
Yes, the actual Labor Day (also known as International Workers’ Day or May Day) has celebrated the worker and those who have given their lives for the labor movement every May 1st since 1890. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans associate Labor Day with the first Monday of September, and, typically, have no real understanding as to why a portion of the population takes the day off as the rest suffer working through a retail ‘Sellathon’.
Believe it or not, Labor Day has its roots in militant trade unionism and radical anarchist and socialist politics. You have Grover Cleveland, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and red scare propaganda to thank for the general population’s ignorance of the holiday. Simply put, Grover Cleveland chose the first Monday of September, instead of May 1st, for fear of empowering the socialist and anarchist movements by memorializing the Haymarket Affair (Kohn, 2014), and in 1947, President Eisenhower established Loyalty Day on May 1st, so as to circumvent any domestic communist menace (Credo Reference, Loyalty day). All of which helped to mask the true origins of Labor Day and perpetuate ignorance of it.
If the average American doesn’t know the truth behind Labor Day, it would be optimistic to assume that they are aware of the Haymarket Affair. To summarize, the Haymarket Affair took place on May 4th, and was originally a rally against police brutality and state oppression in response to the murder of several striking workers at the hands of police the day prior at the McCormick Factory (the strike being a part of a larger general strike that was in support of labor unions declaring May 1st to be the day that the 8 hour work day would be established). Organized by anarchists, the rally featured prominent speakers August Spies and Albert Parsons. With roughly 2,000 people in attendance, the rally was a peaceful event until police arrived to disperse the crowd. Soon after, an unknown individual threw a bomb at the police causing an explosion which led to the police and, possibly, members of the crowd to start firing. This resulted in the deaths of several police officers and one civilian with others injured (History.com Editors, 2009). Later, eight anarchists (including Spies and Parsons) were arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to execution (save for one who got 15 years in prison) for the events of the Haymarket Affair. This trial was notoriously rigged and unjust. It was conducted without any evidence, and without proper judicial procedure (i.e. packed jury, biased judge, etc.). After four of the men were hung, and a fifth committed suicide, the surviving three were pardoned (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021).
Moreover, the Haymarket Affair is just one example of the blood and sacrifice that the American Labor Movement has given so that things like the 40 hour work week and minimum wage are standards. Both the Pullman Strike and Mayday Riots of 1894 took place only a few years later, and the list goes on. It was because of the militancy and sheer popularity of the labor movement that these victories were gained.
Fast forward 131 years later, the United States is a very different country. The militancy that once personified trade and labor unions is all but gone. Their power and influence waning over the past decades. They’re only political representation, a dubious Democratic party that caters more to the whims of capitalists than it does workers. Even worse, the standards of a 40 hour work week and a living wage have been undermined as most Americans have to work more than 40 hours a week, between several jobs, just to make ends meet. But hope is not lost.
Only a few months ago (Dec 2020), the world witnessed the largest general strike in the history of mankind, with some 250 million workers and activists participating…In India. In response to neoliberal legislation that would threaten their livelihoods, Indian trade unions organized a general strike which was then followed by millions of farmers marching on New Delhi, demanding a reversal of neoliberal agricultural reforms, among others (i.e. distribute grain rations, prevent privatization of the public sector, etc.). In the short run, the strike has been successful, bringing the government to the negotiating table in which the Indian Supreme Court has stalled the implementation of the reforms in order to listen to public input.
Not unlike the American general strike of 1886, the Indian general strike of 2020 has demonstrated the power of workers standing together in solidarity and using direct action to achieve their goals. If the American labor movement is to remain a force to be reckoned with, a general strike is perhaps the most effective way to leverage the power of workers over capitalists. If a pandemic isn’t enough to convince people that workers are the backbone of industry, a general strike would undoubtedly make this fact undeniable, and show the rest of the working classes what they are capable of and what they can accomplish if they assert themselves.
In the words of one of the condemned anarchists of the Haymarket Affair, George Engels, “The workingman can free himself from the tyranny of capitalism only through force; just as all advances of which history speaks, have been brought about through force alone. We see from the history of this country that the first colonists won their liberty only through force that through force slavery was abolished, and just as the man who agitated against slavery in this country, had to ascend the gallows, so also must we.” (Engel)
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2021, April 27). Haymarket affair. Retrieved May 06, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Haymarket-Affair
Engel, G. (n.d.). George Engel, Address by a Condemned Haymarket Anarchist (1886). Retrieved from http://www.west-windsor-plainsboro.k12.nj.us/UserFiles/Servers/Server_10640642/File/bugge/Chapter%2018/HaymarketRiotCondemenedMan.pdf
History.com Editors. (2009, December 16). Haymarket riot. Retrieved May 06, 2021, from https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/haymarket-riot
Joy, S. (2020, November 26). At least 25 crore workers participated in GENERAL Strike; some States saw Complete shutdown: Trade unions. Retrieved May 06, 2021, from https://www.deccanherald.com/national/at-least-25-crore-workers-participated-in-general-strike-some-states-saw-complete-shutdown-trade-unions-920200.html
Kohn, S. (2014, September 01). Why labor day was a political move. Retrieved May 06, 2021, from http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/01/opinion/kohn-labor-day/
Loyalty day: Cultural studies: Holidays around the world – credo reference. (n.d.). Retrieved May 06, 2021, from https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/hfcwd/loyalty_day/0
Over 250 million workers Join national strike in India. (2020, November 26). Retrieved May 06, 2021, from http://www.industriall-union.org/over-250-million-workers-join-national-strike-in-india
The Wire Staff. (2021, January 12). Supreme court STAYS implementation of Farm laws, sets Up Committee for talks. Retrieved May 06, 2021, from https://thewire.in/law/supreme-court-farm-laws-implemntation-stay-committee-talks