As we mark this day with workers across the world we are acutely conscious of the particularly momentous nature of May Day 2020. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is making clear just how much the cause of workers across the world is, and must be, the same. It is workers who are on the front lines dealing with the COVID-19 crisis—healthcare workers, first responders, food workers, delivery and transportation workers, and so many others. It is workers, and especially the most marginalized among them, that most vulnerable to the health and economic dangers posed by this crisis. More than any event in our lifetimes this crisis is showing that an injury to one must be the concern of all. We cannot stop COVID-19 from crossing borders. Our efforts must follow the virus across borders if we are to successfully combat it.
So this particular May Day holds special meaning for us, as does the story of how May Day came into being. It is vitally important that we remember that story. On May 1, 1886, 134 years ago today, something happened that would have been unimaginable only six months earlier. A U.S. labor movement that had been totally wiped out not once but twice over the previous half century, experienced a sudden and unexpected revival. Unions sprang up in a host of trades; a national union called the Knights of Labor sudden grew to be the largest organization American workers had produced in the entire 19th century; and workers began agitating for an 8-hour workday.
Their demand for eight hours was for more than simply time off from work. It symbolized something much deeper: a demand for full citizenship and a democratic voice in shaping an economy that was creating enormous gains in productivity, disrupting traditional economic structures, and creating vast fortunes for some, misery and exclusion for others. When those strikers raised the famous cry of “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will,” they were asserting something crucial about the place of work in a good society: the economy was meant to serve people, people were not made to serve the economy. In demanding “8 hours for what we will,” they were demanding space for life, for family, for leisure, for reading, for self-improvement, and, most of all, time to be full, participatory citizens. The workers of 1886 knew that as long as they remained tethered to jobs that occupied them 10 or 12 hours a day, they would never have the time to be politically informed and active. Winning that time they knew was not only good for their health and for their families’ welfare, it was essential to the health and welfare of a democratic society.
Their vision was deemed radical by their employers, who fought to break their strikes. In some places their resistance to the 1886 strikes was fierce, as at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, where police fired on strikers, killing two, on May 3, and leading to a massive rally the next day in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a rally that precipitated conflict between workers and the Chicago police that triggered a massive crackdown which left the labor movement reeling and on the defensive across the United States. In the chaos that followed the “Haymarket Affair,” the United States experienced its first “red scare.” Radicals blamed for the May 4 confrontation were arrested and executed. The Knights of Labor soon unraveled amid the backlash. The U.S. labor movement as a whole survived. Within months the faltering Knights of Labor was replaced by the new American Federation of Labor. But it was a labor movement that feared being tarnished as radical. It would take many years for that movement to eventually win the vision born in 1886 – of the 8-hour work day, and of the right of U.S. workers to organize unions. Not until the New Deal of the 1930s would workers win the 8-hour demand that was fought for in the strikes of 1886.
Over the intervening years, the U.S. labor movement lost touch with the memory of 1886. Ironically, the 1886 strikes were better remembered outside the United States than within.At its founding meeting in Paris in July 1889, the International Socialist Congress – the Second International – designated May 1 as the international worker’s day, explicitly recognizing the US strikes of 1886, the Haymarket martyrs, and the ongoing struggle for the 8-hour day. But what the rest of the world remembered, the US movement chose to forget. Over time, it shied away from recognizing May 1, fearful of associating itself too closely with the “radical immigrant terrorists” who were blamed for the Haymarket Riot. Instead, the American movement lobbied to have the first Monday in September recognized as a US workers’ holiday, and in 1894 America’s Labor Day was created by an act of the U.S. Congress.
If the American roots of May 1 as a workers’ holiday were forgotten over the years, in recent years there have been efforts to recover that lost past here in the United States. Massive protests by U.S. immigrants on May 1, 2006, began that recovery process. That process continues today, reenergized by the demands of the crisis we currently face.
Even before COVID-19, it was becoming increasingly clear that the problems we are facing in the early 21st century resemble those that labor faced 134 years ago when the 8 hour strikers first took to the streets: we faced an economy undergoing rapid change in ways that were disempowering workers; globalization was moving goods and people around as never before; courts were utterly unresponsive to the needs of working people and their efforts to organize, seemingly determined to block any significant effort to empower workers collectively; fear of the immigrant was on the rise, whipped up in many cases by irresponsible scare mongers; growing inequality – vast fortunes for the few on the one hand and growing indebtedness of the many on the other hand – both major political parties lacking clear national policies that would ensure that the productivity gains generated by new technologies would be shared between capital and labor.
Even before COVID-19 we faced conditions that parallel those workers faced in 1886 or 1889: whereas their economy was being transformed by electricity, steam engines, and the beginnings of mass production, ours is being transformed by the internet, the container ship, and artificial intelligence; whereas their era of globalization saw the birth of the first transnational corporations and attracted immigrants for southern and eastern Europe to the US, our era of globalization has seen people, goods, and capital flow across borders as never before; whereas their era saw government fail in its response to the needs of workers; our has seen that failure as well. And whereas their era precipitated change within the labor movement, so too is that true of our era.
COVID-19 has only made all of this more evident. There is no doubt that workers and the labor movement the world over faces a deeper threat today than it has seen since the very depths of the Great Depression. It is a serious crisis, and yet we have the ability to meet the challenges it poses. The message of international solidarity that has long animated the spirit of May Day is exactly we need to meet this moment. So, even as we socially distance, let’s reach out to each other to renew that spirit for the struggles that lie ahead.
Joseph A. McCartin is Professor and Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. Prof. McCartin is an expert on U.S. labor, social and political history. His research and writing focuses on the intersection of labor organization, politics, and public policy. He teaches courses in 20th Century U.S. Labor History, U.S. Since 1945, America Between the Wars, Modern U.S. State and Society, and 20th Century U.S. Social History.
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