Bernard Marszalek, "Labor Day, May Day, What’s to Celebrate?"

Labor Day, May Day, What’s to Celebrate?
Bernard Marszalek

I suspect that more than a few people would accept as historic fact that Stalin created May Day, and to checkmate Stalin’s evil, communist attempt to influence US workers, FDR initiated Labor Day. Two utopias in conflict: the Workers’ Paradise vs. the American Dream. The Communist Manifesto or FDR’s Second Bill of Rights.

Oddly enough, there is symmetry at play here as both leaders corrupted the original meaning of these workers’ holidays. Neither Stalin nor FDR cared two figs for the historic struggle of the working class; their intent, like the Fathers of the Church before them, was to seize dissentsion, drain it of its original content and fill it with a conformist ideology.

May Day grew internationally to memorialize the struggle of the working class as exemplified by the Haymarket Martyrs, however, in America, the home of this infamy, workers were expected to “Honor Labor.” In other words, on Labor Day the workers celebrate work, while on May Day workers commemorate the struggle to gain control of it, in fact, to abolish it.

This may sound extravagant, but how else can one view the origins of the struggle for the Eight Hour Day, which both holidays share? Let us not look upon this demand for a shorter word day with the mindset of a 20th Century labor union official, but from the point of view of a half-starved laborer trying to survive the brutal conditions of his or her employment, whether in a factory where the machinery created a din so loud that ear drums shattered, or in a sweatshop bent over a sewing machine all day, or in a poorly ventilated mine, or in a slaughterhouse where human body parts where lost on a regular basis. The demand for eight hours was not the goal, but the means to build workers’ solidarity for another fight and yet more control of production. The bosses’ knew this. To give an inch here, they recognized, would open the door for more demands.

The struggle to reduce the hours of the working day is widely believed to have begun in 1824 with a wildcat strike by the women weavers of Slater’s Mill in Pawtucket, RI. These young women protested to work only ten hours! The righteousness of their cause, repudiated by the bosses, inspired the townspeople to pool their money and erect a community clock to prevent the mill owners from jiggering the length of the work shifts.

Sporadically in the coming decades, attempts to limit the workday continued until in the 1880s work stoppages for the eight-hour day advanced from individual worksites to citywide demonstrations. The most successful protest, organized by the New York City Labor Council for September 5, 1882, brought out as many as 40,000 workers. The success of this event, which some refer to as the first Labor Day, spurred replication throughout the country.

Some labor historians credit Peter McGuire, a carpenter who became a leader in the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL), with founding Labor Day. But others believe that Mathew Maguire, a socialist and organizer of the New York demonstration, deserves the honor. He was, after all, instrumental in 1884 for situating the holiday on the first Monday of September. Disputes on the origins of Labor Day give way to agreement that the historic beginning of official recognition began in 1887, when Oregon became the first state to proclaim it as a legal holiday. Several months later, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York followed the lead of the west coast state. Workers continued to agitate for the Eight Hour Day and by 1894, 23 States had fallen in line and on June 28 of that year, Congress declared the first Monday in September as Labor Day, though it didn’t legislate eight hours as a standard working day.

Celebrations of labor’s Day reached a peak at the end of the 19th Century and trailed off in the early decades of the new century, until it was revived in the 30s to coincide with the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and renewed labor agitation. Finally, the Eight Hour Day achieved legal status in 1935 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, taking only one hundred and eleven years from that original Slater’s Mill strike to be enshrined in law.

Labor Day celebrations waned during the war years, and then were revived again by the unions in the late 40s to fight the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Bill. With that battle lost, the unions retreated from promoting Labor Day as a day of protest to one of commemoration, or rather, as some see it, given the increasing irrelevancy of organized labor, subservience.

May Day too had its historic period of obligatory (state) subservience after the Russian Revolution. In Russia, May Day was a day of boring, seemingly endless parades of military hardware, where the Russian workers, reduced to spectators, gazed at the slow rolling phalanxes of armaments meant to defend their paradise.

The origins of May Day, less disputed than Labor Day, also arose from the agitation to control the production process by limiting the duration of work. In 1884, at the convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, a resolution was passed marking May 1, 1886 as the day that all of the workers in North America would limit their time at work to eight hours.

Building support for that date, eighteen months in the future, commenced immediately and in Chicago popular labor agitators, anarchists of mainly German descent, began organizing for a one-day general strike for May 1st to support the Eight Hour Day.

The turnout in Chicago was immense, with some sources counting 90,000 participants it was by far the largest protest of all the cities in North America. It is not hyperbole to say that a total of half-million workers across the country downed tools and paraded that day. May Day in 1886 fell on a Saturday, still a working day, but the warm temperatures enticed whole families to come out and celebrate. The parades everywhere were peaceful and carnival-like, despite the fear mongering of the corporate press.

In Chicago, the general strike coincided with several ongoing labor disputes. The most significant strike was under way at the McCormick-Harvester Works. McCormick employed several thousand and was one of the largest industrial plants in the US. On May 3rd, a rally was called to support the workers and thousands gathered at the entrance to the plant to hear a series of speeches, that though militant, did not advocate violence. The factory shift bell sounded and strikebreakers began to emerge from the complex, a struggled ensued, and the police overreacted and killed several strikers. The next day, a protest rally took place and in the drizzly evening, as the speakers were winding down and the crowd peacefully dispersing, a bomb exploded. The explosion and wild shooting by the police killed seven of their force and four workers, besides wounding dozens.

The event, known today as the Haymarket Affair, resulted in the first Red Scare (or more precisely, Red and Black Scare) with media, police and judicial forces joining in ruling class-coordinated repression – a corrupt judge, biased jury and a lying cop – the result: four innocent men hanged, one suicide, and two got life (years later commuted by an ethical Governor, who acted against popular sentiment). Despite this local repression and a national bomb-throwing anarchist scare, workers’ organizations continued to grow: the Knights of Labor doubled its membership that year and a united Labor Party formed in Chicago.

The impetus to agitate for the eight-hour day continued and the newly formed AFL, in 1888, proclaimed May 1, 1890 as another Eight Hour Day general strike day. A year later the international workers’ organization meeting in Paris (the Second International), after an in-person plea by Samuel Gompers (later the conservative head of the AFL), declared May 1st as an international day of strikes to demand the eight hour day. And so in 1890 the first International May Day occurred. It was a major success across Europe and parts of South America and the following year the Second International declared it an annual workers’ holiday.

It is ironic that though the AFL was responsible for alerting the Second International to the eight hour agitation scheduled for 1890, it quickly back-pedaled from any hint of radicalism, for example by repudiating strikes. And in a move to salvage the Democratic Party from the dire electoral effects of the Panic of ’93 – a major depression began that year – the AFL supported pro-business President Grover Cleveland, who in gratitude signed legislation that proclaimed Labor Day a national holiday. His pro-labor gesture wasn’t enough however to secure his victory, another sour labor defeat at the poles.

Much of the history of American labor is the history of its domestication. The workers had first to be tamed before the industrial plutocrats would negotiate with them. And who better to serve as the workers’ minders, than their union leaders? Ruling class violence in the early labor struggles had but one purpose: to teach the workers that they could never win on their terms. The industrialists saw the dispute about hours as a step by workers to wrestle control of the work schedule from them, and so consumerism and electoral illusions were traded for workers’ control of production. The bosses retained rule of the shop floor.

What then does Labor Day or May Day represent? What significance can they have for a workforce that, universally, slides down the steep slope of broken promises? Labor Day especially, with all its archival references, amounts to little more than an insult to the American workers.

We all know the tragic litany of working class defeat, from living wage jobs to dead end ones, from prized skills that one could be proud of, to soulless routines. But the defeat of the working class, as our brief historic overview indicated, began before the Golden Age of the Fifties when unions were winning concessions and workers were enjoying the consumer bounty that came with their acquiescence. It is obvious today that the immediate post-World War II era was an exception in the history of capitalism. It is foolish to fight for those days to return.

The demand for control of the workday was grounded in the insight, now seemingly lost, that workers should benefit from the increase in productivity. Paul Lafargue, known for his essay The Right to be Lazy, stated the obvious:

A good working woman makes with her needles only five meshes a minute, while certain circular knitting machines make 30,000 in the same time. Every minute of the machine is thus equivalent to a hundred hours of the working woman’s labor, or again, every minute of the machine’s labor, gives the working woman ten days of rest.

When Lafargue wrote these provocative lines, in 1883, they were directed at the wage slaves toiling in the sweatshops and mines. Workers then, as now, never benefited from the introduction of machinery, in fact, the machinery mostly meant a speed-up. And beyond that, workers could not take pride in their jobs; if they were proud of anything, it was the solidarity of their class. The artisanal sense of a job done well persisted in a few trades, like printing, tool making, custom needle trades or cabinetry, but for the vast majority, to call their work a craft, much less a calling, applied to another era.

Much has changed in the one hundred and thirty years since Lafargue wrote –

“A strange delusion possesses the working classes…. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work….”

The most obvious change has been the decline of manufacturing jobs in the West and the growth of the service sector. But what has not changed is the corrosive influence of the work ethic. Then as now the elite, in the media, in the political parties and in the boardrooms, propagate the dogma and the workers attend the church. Every body grumbles about their jobs and yet we are all expected to identify with one. If useful work were available, maybe dedication to a job might understandable. This may be the case for healthcare workers, who despite dispiriting management practices, have higher job satisfaction than most other workers. They may, not incidentally, have union protections. On the other hand, employment “opportunities” are expanding faster in unorganized sweatshops, like the Amazon warehouses, or in fast food, retail, janitorial services and other marginal jobs. The mobilization to raise the wages of these exploited proles merits support, yet support does not entail ignoring economic realities and the resulting immiseration.

Few today raise the heartfelt concerns about job quality that were expressed forty years ago in Studs Terkel’s groundbreaking book Working. Are the tasks we do useful? Do they satisfy our need to feel accomplished? To call for “Jobs Now” too easily amounts to a demand for grunt jobs. Adding the demand for a so-called “living wage” – a misnomer if there ever was one – seems purely cosmetic, or more precisely, it simply assuages class guilt. Where is the demand for useful work? Even the demand for Green Jobs has evaporated, I presume so as not to embarrass Obama for his poor performance, again.

Of course, raising this issue lifts the lid on a sequence of interrogations that corporate America cannot recognize. What defines a useful job? And when did corporations last create one? Their track record is almost as bad as the Federal Government, which at least still hires a few food inspectors. How can it be that millions of people slave away in dull, meaningless jobs as our infrastructure collapses around us? We have here a supreme waste of material and human resources. A troubling thought must arise – do we have useful employment for all who need jobs?

Let us dream the ideal government-hiring program. The federal government hires all the people needed to rebuild and repair the thousands of bridges civil engineers have designated in poor condition. More people are hired to update school buildings and public hospitals, to construct a new energy grid and to build high-speed rail all across the country. The federal government pays local school districts to hire teachers and teacher aides (or more correctly, re-hires all those fired). Rural clinics are established. The National Forests and Parks receive funding to update and expand and to prepare for the devastating effects of climate change fast upon us. We have here a new, New Deal. A Green New Deal. This is the program the fans of FDR want, and as an immediate program to create useful employment and resuscitate capitalism, it fits the bill. Of course, this is fantasy. The corporate and political elite (no longer home to enlightened Keynesians) would fight it savagely for numerous reasons.

But more to the point, A Green New Deal is not a long-range strategy if we want to address, at minimum, the next twenty years. Stop-gap programs are ultimately a waste of valuable political energy, besides being delusional about radical change. In the 19th Century, unlike today, the vision of those who opposed capitalism took the form of controlling the workplace so that the economy could benefit all. Today with the workplace, as it was known then, almost extinct (at least in the West) and work itself taking an atomized form, where it can be secured at all, another vision needs to be developed. Economic democracy, in other words, must have a 21st Century relevancy and a contemporary vocabulary.

Given the precariousness of employment, the wasted intelligence and creativity of those who do have jobs, the lack of collective engagement (formerly called civic pride) and the need to retrieve the quest for a just society that motivated our ancestors (a legacy stolen from us by an increasingly repressive system) a society based on an expansion of citizenship must be imagined. Just as our passport certifies our political rights, we need a debit card that guarantees our economic rights. In other words, income has to be separated from jobs. The term defining this idea in the US is Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). The same notion exists throughout Europe, in some countries of Africa, Asia and South America.

The concept is straightforward. Every individual receives a stipend that covers all essential needs to live a frugal life, that is, an amount sufficient to live without holding a job. The insecurity that results from our current job shortage would be eliminated. This alone would save all the costs that the state must bear to deal with social breakdown. But beyond the welfare savings, providing modest economic security makes it possible for healthy social outcomes. For the great majority of people, receiving a stipend would not, as cynics think, see them take root to couches. Consider it an inoculation for the body politic. Anyone would be free to pursue an avocation, to experiment with creativity. How many artists, musicians and writers are waiting to blossom? Presumably, most people would supplement their guaranteed income with employment, however, that may not mean a full-time job, nor a poorly paid one, nor one that was complete b.s. The debit card extends the traditional rights signified by the passport into the realm of the economy. Instead of taking over the means of production as in the traditional Marxist model, the fully endowed citizen has simply seized his or her labor power and leases it to the capitalist on a more equitable basis.

This arrangement need not end capitalism, just its most egregious forms. Freed from compulsive wage-slavery, and sustained with economic security, the new citizen can begin to develop the idea of a democratic society. A society as envisioned by the world’s great philosophers, incorporating leisure, camaraderie and festival. The barriers that today restrict our ability to enjoy the pleasures of friendship and collaboration could methodically displace a life of toil and give way to new forms of enjoyable, productive and creative activity.

Worker cooperatives and employee managed firms, though rare business ventures today, do offer a hint of what this collaboration might look like. These firms, because they are hostage to economic forces beyond the control of the workers, are partial models of democracy. If, however, they were free of at least some of the stress of coping with a profit-driven economy, their convivial working relations could unfold new forms of working together. We have no name for this concept, this new sort of activity. What do we call an activity that encompasses the productivity of a job, without the coercion; that maintains the spontaneity of play, but does not presume its ephemerality; a term that encompasses creativity of art without its isolation and commodification?

The social implications that result from introducing a universal debit card are vast. Let’s dream again, but this time better. Firstly, the trap door to mass overproduction of commodities falls away and a whole range of community workshops replace shopping. Now able to devote more time to their first love, people create all sorts of treasures – like the family keepsakes that have disappeared from households with the rise of pernicious plastic crap. Next, hackers – again with newly available time – take on the universalization of the knowledge commons, making available to humanity systems and techniques better than the proprietary ones. Freeing social creativity in just these two areas unlocks technology from the commodity form and offers solutions to remediate the world wasted by capitalist exploits, especially for people in regions and countries suffering from its most ravenous excesses.

By subverting the mania for more jobs with pleasurable pursuits, we slow the expansion of capitalism (and eventually put it in reverse gear) and that allows us time to reflect on priorities and to undertake together practical projects. With the drive to accumulate moderated, with growth no longer associated with progress, we develop, by doing, a truly sustainable society, one focused on conserving resources while enriching our cultural life. If we reverse perspective, from commodity production (immediate gratification) to communal production (long-range democratic planning) we then have an opportunity to respond to climate change, not as an emergency, but with an urgent and sensible plan.

For too long we have accepted the view that homo faber defines us as human, when it seems that to define us fully as culture-forming beings, homo ludens more appropriately reflects our being. The great visionaries and many traditional societies have known this. Since the onslaught of our humanity by the rise of industrialism, we have increasingly labored under a burden – we have been witness to an ever-diminishing prospect of realizing our potential. Future May Days, infused with its original Green hue will retain its festive nature, but Labor Day may simply move into that realm of respectful observance we reserve for the horror and mayhem that we solemnly contemplate on Hiroshima Day, or Armistice Day.