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!