by FW Noah
In the United States and many other countries, there are labor days that celebrate the working class contributions to the economy, the infrastructure, and the nation as a whole. While many of these holidays give great praise and pomp towards working class people, they often overlook the history that led up to the foundation of such celebrations, and what the foundations were really laid upon. Much of the early labor history is filled with great strife, conflict, death and destruction often directed towards working class individuals, who attempted to organize their lives in a way to break off the shackles of exploitation and capitalism as a whole.
May Day began as a remembrance of the Haymarket Affair of 1886, when several anarchists who were supporting a protest for the 8 hour day in the city of Chicago were falsely accused by the police of detonating a bomb, and were executed as a result despite nationwide demands for their clemency. Since that day, every May the 1st became a day of celebrating the toil and contributions of workers in society and the struggle for better working class conditions, and uplifted the voices of those who were often marginalized or ignored by the upper classes. However, the United States of America has a different official Labor Day, established by the federal government in 1894. The change in date was intended to distract workers from the more radical origins of the holiday. This began a trend in the larger labor movement away from uniting the working class as one body with common interests and towards formalizing relations between a disadvantaged class and those with the power and wealth to decide the course of negotiations.
The first Red Scare in the United States not only came at great detriment to the Industrial Workers of the World but also to the union movement as a whole. Beginning in 1919, many leftists and their sympathizers were suppressed by business interests and the government and many of the larger trade unions. Raids, massacres, the violent suppression of strikes and anti-syndicalism laws characterized the most intense era of labor strife in the United States, and bolstered a new generation of workers that were willing to put their livelihoods and even their lives on the line so that their family and friends could live a decent and comfortable life. However, after the passing of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the character and actions taken by working people in order to unionize their workplaces and demand better conditions from their employers drastically changed over the course of two decades. The willingness of workers to put their very lives on the line in order to change the organization of labor was slowly rounded down to more performative actions in the form of jurisdictional strikes and by negotiating with employers over the conditions of their labor despite the workers having all the true power in the workplace.
While the National Labor Relations Act was supposed to prevent unfair employer interference in organizing efforts, and to increase the negotiating power of workers, it ultimately failed to nullify the imbalance of power that employers have over their workers in negotiations. It failed to stop illegal punishments for attempted organizing. Worse, it implemented a series of restrictions on workers in how they conduct collective bargaining with employers. These determinants are still felt to this day by workers and organizers alike.
At the end of the Second World War and the advent of the second Red Scare, many in labor and leftist circles were being actively targeted and suppressed by the government. “Loyalty day” and “law day” became the new holidays recognized on May the 1st, and with the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, “right to work” laws and further restrictions on the delegation and implementation of labor negotiations all but squashed the labor movement in America in the following decades. Union participation declined heavily since the 70’s, and even the IWW fell into a state of near-death. Had it not been for the passing on of first-hand history by older members and experienced union organizers, along with the tenacity of working people in revitalizing and revising organizing tactics into the 21st century, the labor movement of today would be much more conservative in its efforts and scope.
Along our arduous labor struggle, great concessions were made by trade unions towards the bosses and the politicians they pay for in order to pave a better path for labor peace. While these concessions have offered less violence directly towards workers, they have allowed some formal legal processes for unionization and the businesses of today, there are still a great many labor rights in which working class people are denied. Furthermore, many of those compromises limited the power of workers to organize in their workplaces and what actions they were allowed to take in order to better their conditions and ultimately their future, and this has been at a great cost not only in the role of labor organizing today but potentially for the labor organizing of the future.
It then seems somewhat hypocritical that we continue to have a false holiday on a different day of the year that celebrates the contributions of working class people, when those very people actually have little say in the current economy and their role in the society that they are credited for building. Indeed, it is for this reason that we in the labor movement continue to hold May the 1st as the true labor day: it holds our history firmly in the hands of the workers who made it possible and the workers who continue to struggle for a greater working class emancipation from capitalism and wage slavery.
Hope is not enough. We must act, hold firm our values and our history so that we may never forget the price of our fellow workers before us.