International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day and Labor Day, is a holiday that honors the working classes and the labor movement, and also commemorates the Haymarket affair of 1886, in which workers went on strike for rights like an eight-hour workday and better working conditions (it soon became violent due to police brutality and a fatal bombing of unknown origin — you can read the details of the tragic unfolding of events here).
Despite being a seminal event in the history of the labor movement and the United States as a whole, the Haymarket affair (also known as the Haymarket massacre or riot), is given little attention in school or media. The event was one of several that captured the frustrations and concerns regarding growing inequality, workers’ exploitation, and class tension. It also contributed to the sorts of rights we now take for granted in the workplace, from safer conditions to more reasonable working shifts.
It is telling that while much of the world celebrates, the U.S. forgoes any formal recognition and instead observes “Law Day”, which affirms the importance of law in the foundation of the country, and “Loyalty Day” (formerly “Americanization Day”), which emphasizes patriotism towards American heritage and values. Both these holidays have roots in the First Red Scare of the early 20th century, and formalized in the context of the Second Red Scare that took place during the Eisenhower administration.
The participation of socialists and anarchists in what was a fairly broad-based movement did little to endear the holiday to the American establishment, especially in the context of the Cold War. Even to this day, when one speaks of workers’ rights and the like, it draws suspicion and outright ire, as if only the far-left should or could have an interest in the well-being of the majority of society (especially the vulnerable segment that does some of the toughest, most important, yet most poorly treated work).
Amid reversals in the rights and prospects of workers — from stagnating wages and salaries, to lesser job security — it is little surprise that a global holiday that recognizes the rights and well-being of workers would be overlooked and even subject to fear and contempt. Now more than ever do we need to restore a sense of consciousness and dignity among working people who are underpaid, mistreated, and deprived of opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. The auspicious absence of an American equivalent to May Day — our own Labor Day is celebrated in a different time and context — is both a symptom and cause of hostility and apathy towards the plight of working class people.
But given where the economy is headed, and how many people are getting dragged down with it, how long will that sentiment prevail? How long until we realize that labor rights and the labor movement are of interest to anyone seeking a more just, equitable, and thus thriving society for all? More people enjoying more opportunities, more dignified work, more spending power, which in turns helps businesses and grows jobs.
Of course it is not easy and it will take time and effort, perhaps unprecedented in scale. But it is a worthy endeavor for which we need to get started on as soon as possible, given the time it will take and the number of human lives being immiserated or even lost in the face of poverty and exploitations, both in the U.S. and abroad (it is International Workers’ Day for a reason).
May Day and the associated events and movements it recognized helped precipitate a more prosperous economic system, and within decades produced a culture and environment in which more and more people could share in the fruits of work and commerce, with empowerment in both the commercial and political spheres. Perhaps the second time around we can restore these now beleaguered values and go even further.