Thursday, May 1, 2008

Happy May Day! Long Live the Working Class, its Past Victories, Present Struggles, and Socialist Future

by Norman Markowitz

I got a text message from a former student who is a labor organizer today wishing me happy May Day. I have never gotten a text message that wasn't a commercial and I have never sent a text message so I screwed up my answer, but I called her up and wished her a Happy May Day.

The AFL-CIO website is calling May Day International Labor Day, which would make George Meany and others turn over in their grave. This is a major step forward, but May Day can't be separated from the socialist and communist movements which have been at the center of May Day demonstrations from their beginning in 1890, from the revolutionary heritage of May Day, since it was decided to make May 1st, 1890, a day of mass protests for the eight hour day and solidarity with workers through the world at a conference in Paris in 1889 of labor and socialist representatives (with Marxists a major force in both groups) in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution.

May 1st was chosen in solidarity with the workers of the United States. The AFL-CIO website has a valuable link to the history of May Day in which it mentions the campaign launched in the U.S. on May 1, 1886 for the eight hour day. But it doesn't mention the role of anti-capitalist workers and groups in leading the May 1 demonstrations, which also were not about a holiday but about strikes to achieve the 8 hour day. In Chicago, Albert Parson's a former confederate soldier who had became a anti-racist editor fighting the KKK in Texas, then an socialist and later anarcho-socialist printer and writer well known and respected in working class circles, headed a parade of thousands of workers in Chicago on May 1, 1886. When pickets at a strike at the McCormick Harvester factory, were fired on by police a few days later, a mass protest demonstration in which Parsons was one of the leaders was organized in Haymarket Square in Chicago. After Parson's and the other organizers had left the demonstration very late in the events and a battalion of police march on the remaining demonstrators and ordered them to disperse, someone (who was never found) through a bomb and a riot ensued claiming a number of lives. Parson's and a number of his comrades in the leadership of the demonstration were tried for murder and four (even though nothing connected them to the unknown bomb thrower), including Parsons, were executed in spite of an international protest campaign from labor, socialist, and many liberal organizations and groups through Europe and the U.S. Those executed became "martyrs" for the U.S. labor movement and the resolution to make May 1st the day of protest was put forward by the U.S. delegate representing the AFL (which at the time had a large socialist contingent).

The AFL-CIO website also suggests that the holiday Americans still celebrate, Labor Day, has its origins in the the activities of Peter MaGuire, a leader of the Carpenters Union in the early 1880s (the website makes the point that there is debate over this). But our readers should remember that Peter MaGuire was a leading socialist in the U.S. labor movement whose defeat years later by a conservative business unionist was seen by some (myself included) as an important symbolic event in the shift of skilled workers away from an inclusionary class conscious trade unionism toward to an exclusionary "job" conscious" unionism.

The article then goes on to make the the important point that Labor Day was declared a National Holiday by Congress in 1894 fearful of a worker backlash in response to the Cleveland administration's brutal suppression of the Pullman Strike, led by American Railway Union president Eugene Debs. The backlash did occur as the Republican party won a major victory against the conservative Democratic Cleveland administration. Debs, as the article doesn't mention, went on to become the leader of the Socialist Party of America after it was established at the beginning of the twentieth century and was its presidential candidate in four elections.

I am trying to provide this article, which contains valuable information and an overall progressive orientation in its treatment of May Day and Labor Day, with constructive criticisim. The article also quotes really prominent labor historians David Montgomery and Nelson Lichtenstein whose statements capture the essence of class struggle that May Day was and is about.Montgomery's comment that "First state governments and then the federal government adopted the day (labor day) in response to workers demands The government did not create the holiday," is especially important in understanding what May Day was about, just as the "government" responded to workers demands in 1938 in the U.S. when it created the eight hour day standard, which the original U.S. May 1 demonstrations and the later international demonstrations were initiated to establish. But its omissions undermine it signnificantly as a tool to educate working people.

You cannot omit the Marxist and socialist history of both May Day globally and Labor Day in the U.S. (in terms of MaGuire's role), not to mention the role of May Day in the global Communist and Socialist movements right up to today and understand its significance for the past, and its meaning for the present and the future. Those who separate labor from socialism, which laws like Taft-Hartley in the U.S. along with purges and blacklists sought to do after WWII, in effect strike blows against both.

I did learn something really important from the AFL-CIO article that I did not know and I can teach the AFL-CIO article's writers something about this also. In 2003, the Bush administration declared May 1st Loyalty Day, using September 11 and the "war against terrorism" as their pretext. I either didn't know this or had forgotten it since, like millions of Americans, you can only take so much of what what the Bush administration is doing without beginning to blot it out from your consciousness.

But the article omits the that this wasn't the first federal "loyalty day." In 1947, the year of Taft-Hartley and the Truman Doctrine in effect declaring the Cold War, the Veterans of Foreign Wars established and Congress later made official May 1st as "Loyalty Day." In the 1950s especially when May Day demonstrations were suppressed, "Loyalty Day" demonstrations were held as parades in which various right-wing groups, both secular and religious, proclaimed their "loyalty" to the America represented by Joe McCarthy. I assume Bush's advisors knew all of that when they pushed through "Loyalty Day in 2003. It fits the old classic definition of a reactionary---those who learn nothing from history and forget nothing from history and thus try to do the same thing over and over again.

I would also tell both our readers and the authors of the AFL-CIO website article that when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, his government officially declared May 1st "national day" to take it away from the Social Democratic and Communist trade unionists whom he was throwing into the new concentration camps. The Nazi government even banned the use of the word "proletarian" But they couldn't kill May Day, just as the McCarthyites in the U.S. couldn't kill it with their "loyalty day. The Bush administration won't kill it either with the "loyalty day" they recycled from p;d McCarthyites in 2003.

The AFL-CIO website mad the central point that workers on this May Day are standing up for workers rights and against the Iraq War and that the AFL-CIO is with them front and center. And that is the best news for this May Day, as the trade union movement prepares to play a leading role in the defeat of the Bush administration and its would be successor, John McCain. Happy May Day.


the Jaded Prole said...

I remember that in writing the editorial for the Blue Collar Review of Spring 2002 that while Bush had declared May 1 "Loyalty Day" from the deck of an aircraft carrier implying blind loyalty to imperialism, it was and remains a day of militant class loyalty for the working people.

Anonymous said...

The rightwingers can declare all the "loyalty days they want(and all of the "law days" too, which was first used against Labor Day and then revived in the 1950s by the American Bar Association against May Day) but May Day has never been effectively suppressed over time, and that of course includes Nazi Germany