Monday, September 06, 2010

Happy Fake Labor Day

The 1880s aren't usually remembered as a decade of revolutionary ferment. Well, actually the 1880s aren't usually remembered. But on May 1, 1886, a wave of working class militancy brought hundreds of thousands of workers out on the streets to defend their right to organize. In Chicago, the protests continued for days, culminating in a bombing that killed a police officer. While most people believed right-wing provocateurs were responsible for the bombing, seven anarchist labor leaders were tried and executed for the killing. These working-class heroes became known as the Haymarket Martyrs. May 1 soon became a workers' holiday world-wide, when people walked away from their jobs to celebrate their rights to organize themselves for social and economic justice. May 1 became the occasion for working people to think of themselves as a class with pride and with power. However when labor day was established as a national holiday in the United States, the day chosen was not May 1 but a day in September, now marked as the first September Monday.

Labor Day in the U.S. thus became something separate from May Day, from the real Labor Day. If May Day was a celebration of working class autonomy, class consciousness and solidarity, American Labor Day as a sort of gift from the government, a celebration of patriotic platitudes. Conciliationist labor bureaucracies and politicians alike could make earnest and meaningless speeches about the importance of organized labor in the fabric of American society, steering cleer of anything too red, too militant, too confrontational, too likely to subvert the American lie that class divisions don't exist, that millionaires and working people are all one big happy family. In a stroke of genius, labor day was thus completely depoliticized, laying the groundwork for the isolation of workers organizations from political struggle.

Now Labor Day is likely to mean something like a "rest from your labor" which suits me fine in that I like a day off work, but it's devoid of any intrinsic celebratory meaning. As I, like so many people, find my pay and benefits much reduced over an earlier time, I am painfully reminded that this holiday now also means a holiday from getting paid for a day's work.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not gonna rush out on the street today with a red flag shouting at people that this isn't the real Labor Day. I'm not going to spend my whole day focused on the need for regular folks to engage in autonomous collective solidarity. But I'm not gonna be saying any pledges of allegiance or waving any stars and stripes either. I'm gonna be lazy, I'm gonna enjoy the balmy late summer weather.

One day we're gonna get our groove back, remember that it really is us against them, and then we'll really have something to celebrate.

P.S. As a santero I wholeheartedly endorse wearing white after labor day. Let your freak flag fly!


  1. Organized labor still has a little strength left here in the semi rural outlying suburbs of San Francisco. I can identify with some of the leaders of our local labor movement. They sound more like actual leftists than the dreadlocked vegan trustafarians down at the indy media center. I went down to the IBEW hall for dreadful pancake breakfast cheerfully served by union volunteers. I stuck around for three speeches by local political hopefuls. I shook a few hands. I signed a card for Jerry Brown's campaign and picked up a free North Bay Labor Council, Working Class Hero t shirt. It could have been worse.

    For millions of people Labor Day means an unpaid day off followed by a four day work week with a twenty percent higher work load- "Making up for lost time".

    As an X rock and roller I endorse wearing black at the height of the summer. It's always in season.

  2. A friend of mine posted a cartoon on facebook that says something like "Happy Labor Day! Let's hope we still have jobs when we get back from the weekend!"

    Your tee shirt sounds cool.

    And yep, I know I'm gonna have lots of overtime this week...

  3. Yes, the tee shirt is appropriately black. On the front it says North Bay Working Class Hero. On the back it says "WORKERS UNITED FOR:
    Decent Wages
    Health Care
    A Voice At Work!"

    I suppose you could call those reformist, economist demands but they seem pretty bold considering what we're up against.

  4. I would sure be happy with those four things!

    I just noticed somebody linked to this post on a forum at

    The first comment in response said something that illustrates what I'm talking about exactly: "Very interesting, although the us against them mentality is something I have been warned against."


  5. Yes, THEY would be terribly upset if you identified with US.

  6. i think an 'us versus them' mentality might cause more messes than it cleans. there are plenty of decent bosses in the world, and plenty of shitty blue-collar workers too.

    my undergrad alma-mater actually has a full normal day of class on labor day. most people complain, but i liked it. i never knew what it actually meant, but i knew it wasn't actually important enough to warrant the day off from learning. maybe working, but not learning.

    as for wearing white... who sets those rules? i am wearing a white t-shirt right now as i type this.