The history of Labor Day in the United States is revealing of how, as a society, we think about our workers. Ostensibly, Labor Day celebrates those who keep society up and running—the working class who every presidential candidate pretends to identify with. In reality, Labor Day was established as part of an effort to stifle worker input into the economy and politics. The success of that effort is evident today.
In Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, a bomb from unknown origins was thrown at police who had come to disperse a peaceful eight-hour-workday rally. Police then opened fire on the crowd, killing four. Eight anarchists were arrested and convicted, none of whom were accused of throwing the bomb. Four people were hung: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, August Spies and Albert Parsons. None of these martyrs had their necks broken by the rope; each died by strangulation over the course of what undoubtedly were nine agonizing minutes.
August Spies, speaking to the crowd that had come to watch his execution, said famously, “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today!”
The sentiment expressed here is irrefutable. Every May 1, around the world, workers celebrate May Day, or International Workers’ Day, a holiday that followed the Haymarket Affair and honored the unjust, state-sanctioned murder of the Haymarket martyrs. American workers partaking in May Day festivities was problematic for those in power who saw what an empowered working class had done in Russia in 1917; specifically overthrowing the Tsarist regime.
In 1921, during the first Red Scare, May 1 was observed by the U.S. government as Americanization Day. According to Valerie Strauss, writing uncritically for The Washington Post, the choice of using May 1 was, “to counter International Workers Day, promoted by socialists and Communists to honor workers.”
In 1955, Americanization Day, a tad on the nose with its jingoism, was replaced with Loyalty Day by President Dwight Eisenhower and acknowledged as a federal holiday. Labor Day was first acknowledged by President Grover Cleveland in 1894 in an effort to appease 125,000 striking railroad workers without actually giving over to any of their demands. In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower made a federal holiday of Labor Day, a true emblem of performative solidarity, isolating American workers from international solidarity.
These political efforts surrounding holidays were a part of a broader movement to break the back of the American working class as a political entity. The First Red Scare saw the passing of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, resulting in the arrests of hundreds during and after WWI. In 1919 and 1920, the U.S. Department of Justice, expanding on the powers allotted to it under the 1903 Immigration Act, deported thousands of immigrants involved in working-class politics. In an interesting coincidence, the 1903 Immigration Act was passed in response to the killing of William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901, making this year’s Labor Day also the anniversary of that event. Less consequential policies were enacted after WWII as part of the Second Red Scare, resulting in the purging of left-leaning individuals from the federal government, the persecution of the Communist Party and the Hollywood Blacklist to name a few.
With capitalism thrown into crisis in 1929, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal brought about sweeping changes whereby the working class could lift itself from the unlivable conditions it had fallen into. However, as Jean-François Lyotard notes, when a system dysfunctions “what is actually taking place is only an internal readjustment, and its result can be no more than an increase in the system’s ‘viability.’”
FDR prided himself on “saving capitalism.” In his own words, he said, “It was this administration which saved the system of private profit and free enterprise after it had been dragged to the brink of ruin.”
It would be dragged to that brink again. The neo-liberal assault on regulation in the 1980s and 1990s coupled with tax cuts for the rich and cuts to services for the most vulnerable widened the wealth gap. The Clinton administration ensured the brink would be reached again. NAFTA not only led to the loss of 900,000 jobs, many of them from cities like Springfield and Dayton, it also led to rapid union decline. The threat of capital flight took away organized labor’s ability to negotiate with employers. Today, less than 7% of workers in the private sector belong to a union.
President Clinton also deregulated the banking industry with the repeal of Glass Steagall, instituted in 1933 by Roosevelt in order “to provide for the safer and more effective use of the assets of banks, to regulate interbank control, and to prevent the undue diversion of funds into speculative operations, and for other purposes.”
President Clinton’s own Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, said in 2015, “the repeal of Glass-Steagall led directly to the 2008 Wall Street crash, and without it we’re in danger for another one.”
President Barack Obama’s response to the Wall Street crash was much like Roosevelt’s in that it saved capitalism. The massive bail-out resulted in bankers enriching themselves even further. His stimulus package was not economically transformative. The greatest effect of the Affordable Care Act was to save the system of private health insurance with billions in subsidies, an industry that had been failing in years prior. President Donald Trump, claiming to be different, carried on this path of propping up the richest and powerful and leaving the working class out on its own. President Trump passed massive tax cuts, widening the wealth gap. He renegotiated NAFTA to make it a little more costly for American corporations but not enough to actually bring jobs back to the United States.
By the time COVID-19 came around, the American economy was ripe for a crisis. How did Trump and Congress respond? By passing the CARES Act, which effectively resulted in the upward transfer of billions in wealth. In 2020, unemployment reached near Great Depression levels, but 56 new U.S. billionaires were created. The net worth of Jeff Bezos alone increased by $75 billion. Inequality has grown to rival that which led to the French Revolution.
Labor Day was this week, but not the one that workers deserve. Federal pandemic unemployment benefits ended on Monday. On Aug. 26, the Supreme Court rejected President Joe Biden’s eviction moratorium, putting millions at risk of eviction. Homelessness in Los Angeles is as high as it has ever been. The city has responded with an ordinance outlawing camping at parks, libraries, and such. The media has chosen to obsess over the Afghanistan pullout. Texas is spending its time effectively abolishing abortion and suppressing the vote. Climate change, an externality of capitalism, is currently ravaging the northeast where the economically insecure, who have been living in “basement apartments,” have constituted the majority of deaths to Tropical Storm Ida.
Naturally, these conditions have bread resistance. Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin said of revolutions that “They come automatically, in a measure; the power of things, the current of events and facts, produces them. They are long preparing in the depth of the obscure consciousness of the masses.”
In July, workers at the Topeka Frito-Lay factory went on strike protesting abhorrent conditions such as the notorious “suicide shifts” whereby workers were given only eight hours between shifts. As one worker stated, echoing Bakunin’s sentiment, “this storm has been brewing for years.”
While snacking has increased 80% since the start of the pandemic, Nabisco workers have seen increased hours without pay raises. They claim that some have worked 16-hour days without overtime. In August, over 1,000 Nabisco workers went on strike. In July, the United Mine Workers of America went on strike against the Warrior Met Coal Incorporated, after five years of pressure building following a $6-an-hour pay cut. Three times since their action began, cars have violently driven through their picket line.
But where is the nationwide outrage in defense of these workers? Today we hardly even acknowledge Labor Day. At Wittenberg, the Center Dining Room, the Book Store, and Post 95 were all open and staffed. According to one study, nationwide, over 40% of businesses stay open on Labor Day. 30% of the American workforce works in the gig economy, 92% of whom work during holidays. In his book Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors, Charles S. Maier notices a switch in the American economy around the 1970s. Maier notes that we have gone from being an “empire of production” to an “empire of consumption.” Somewhere in that switch, from industrial to de-industrial, the working class lost its class consciousness.
We missed our opportunity to celebrate labor last Monday. But that’s ok. In about eight months, May 1 will come around and we’ll have another opportunity to celebrate the workers and acknowledge class again.