Friday, May 1, 2009

Why We Celebrate May Day

First, some perspective. It's 2009, and 30 years of "rugged individualism" and conservative attacks on all things social have had their intended effect. We've seen: 
  • Three decades of declining unionization rates, 
  • Three decades of rising productivity coupled with stagnant wages, 
  • Three decades of redistributing the nation's wealth up to the rich. 
The wealthy have enriched themselves at the public's expense through both the management of corporations and the manipulation of the tax system. For some perspective:
  • In 1980, the average pay for a CEO of a major American company was 42 times the pay of his average worker; today that CEO makes 431 times the workers' average. 
  • In the 1950s, a time many Americans remember as a middle class Golden Era, those making over $3 million a year (in 2009 dollars) had an income tax rate of 91 percent. Today the same group pays just 35 percent
  • In 1976, the top one percent of households received 8.9 percent of the nation's pre-tax income. In 2006, the top one percent received 22.9 percent of all income, the greatest concentration of income since 1928.
Simply put, democracy is unsustainable with this concentration of power. Organized labor was critical to building the broadly shared prosperity of those three decades after World War II. And organized labor will be critical to building it again. 

May Day, or International Workers' Day, was born in America on May 1, 1886. 350,000 workers across the country walked out on strike for the eight-hour workday. In Chicago, the struggle was violent. Police and company "detectives" attacked workers' public gatherings. A workers' rally was held in Haymarket Square, and when police charged forward to break it up, someone threw a bomb. In the shooting and chaos that followed, seven policemen and at least four workers were killed.  

The "Haymarket Affair" was just what business needed to crush the eight-hour-day movement. No one knew--and still no one knows--who threw the bomb. But police arrested eight men who were connected to the rally and the workers' movement. Eight guilty verdicts were returned, and four men were executed:  August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel. Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison on the eve of his execution. 

Working people around the world were shocked and appalled by the trials and executions. By 1890, May 1st had become an international day of demonstration to protest for the eight-hour day and honor the Haymarket martyrs. That's how May 1st became International Workers' Day.

Eventually, "Labor Day" was created in the United States to disassociate the labor movement from the radical left and to avoid the international worker solidarity that May Day celebrated. Congress made Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as Loyalty Day and as Law Day.

But old May Day is making a comeback. In 2006, there were big marches for immigrant worker rights on May 1. Since then, the May Day focus in America has been solidarity between workers--those with "documents" and those without. Democracy and justice are making a comeback too. We've seen a big shift to the Left in Washington, and more importantly, a big change in the nation's political atmosphere. People are waking to the fact that the greed-is-good philosophy of the last 30 years has sapped our country of its strength and character. People are waking to the fact that a sustained movement for economic justice will require grassroots organization. It will require bigger, stronger unions. It will require solidarity with working people around the world. And all of this will require some historical perspective.

So thank you, Congress, for Labor Day, but we'll keep May Day too. 


Camp Papa said...

Thanks for the perspective. Those income numbers are eye opening. Who could think that America is a better place without a strong middle class with basic economic justice for all?

Mike Licht, said...

Observe Law Day 2009 by enforcing these statutes:

United States Code, Title 18, 2441: War Crimes
United States Code, Title 18, 2340A: Torture