Labor Day Is a Scam to Keep You Broke and Miserable Forever
By: Tom Cahill
Labor Day is our annual reminder that our government has managed to turn a day of revolutionary action into a day of sleeping late and binge drinking.
May 1, which is known throughout the world as International Workers’ Day (or May Day), remains one of the chief exports of the United States, as the holiday we created is celebrated as an official state holiday in over 90 countries. One of the greatest accomplishments of the US government is the elimination of May Day from American culture. Labor Day is a sorry replacement for a day originally rooted in direct action.
By the late 19th century, American society was incredibly stratified. Ordinary workers often had to clock in 6 days a week for roughly ten to twelve hours a day, amounting to approximately 61 hours a week. In the 1880s, there was no such thing as overtime pay, health insurance, pensions, or legal strikes, even though the robber barons who ran the factories and the railroads made out like bandits. And anyone who got sick or hurt on the job was pretty much shit out of luck. In their explanation of why they celebrate May Day, the Vermont State Employees Association writes:
These were the times before workers compensation, American’s[sic] injured on the job were summarily fired, with no indemnity pay or medical coverage because they no longer had any value in the “free market.” May Day occurred more than fifty years before the National Labor Relations Act created a legal and institutional framework for collective bargaining; attempts at collective bargaining were violently crushed with bullets, clubs and the gallows.
By 1886, workers had had enough of breaking their backs every goddamn day for pennies, and on May 1, roughly a quarter million workers in Chicago peacefully took to the streets in a massive, citywide strike demanding an eight-hour workday. The manifesto for Chicago’s May Day demonstration sounds like something a Marxist pro wrestler named The Red Czar would say on the mic before entering the ring:
Workingmen to Arms!
War to the Palace, Peace to the Cottage, and Death to LUXURIOUS IDLENESS.
The wage system is the only cause of the World’s misery. It is supported by the rich classes, and to destroy it, they must be either made to work or DIE.
One pound of DYNAMITE is better than a bushel of BALLOTS!
MAKE YOUR DEMAND FOR EIGHT HOURS with weapons in your hands to meet the capitalistic bloodhounds, police, and militia in proper manner.
On May 3, Chicago police officers fired on a crowd of picketing steelworkers locked out of their factory. The International Workers of the World (IWW) wrote that protesters responded to police batons with rock-throwing, whereupon the Chicago police did what they do best (shoot people). At least two striking workers were killed by police bullets, according to the IWW.
Workers gathered at Haymarket Square on May 4 to discuss how they would respond to the outbreak of police brutality. August Spies, one of the speakers at the rally, whom the mayor of Chicago said made “no suggestion… for immediate use of force or violence toward any person…” ended up getting bum-rushed by a team of Chicago police officers. That’s when all hell broke loose:
As the speech wound down, two detectives rushed to the main body of police, reporting that a speaker was using inflammatory language, inciting the police to march on the speakers’ wagon. As the police began to disperse the already thinning crowd, a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. No one knows who threw the bomb, but speculations varied from blaming any one of the anarchists, to an agent provocateur working for the police.
Enraged, the police fired into the crowd. The exact number of civilians killed or wounded was never determined, but an estimated seven or eight civilians died, and up to forty were wounded. One officer died immediately and another seven died in the following weeks. Later evidence indicated that only one of the police deaths could be attributed to the bomb and that all the other police fatalities had or could have had been due to their own indiscriminate gun fire.
After that, May 4 became known as the day of the Haymarket Massacre, and May 1 became known as May Day, in which workers everywhere demonstrate for their humanity and worth as laborers.
However, in a cruel twist of Orwellian irony, May 1 in the United States has been rebranded to “Law and Order Day” since the Eisenhower administration, and May 4 has been successfully co-opted to celebrate the financial success of a corporate product (Star Wars’ May the Fourth Be With You Day, brought to you by Disney). The day in which the United States celebrates its workers is celebrated in September, and rather than seize the means of production, we’re encouraged to celebrate by overeating and drinking like college freshmen.
The Labor Day scam can be credited to President Grover Cleveland, who made Labor Day an official holiday in 1894, celebrated on the first Monday of September. Cleveland’s creation of the holiday came after his brutal response to the Pullman Railroad Strike in May and June of 1894, when railroad workers went on strike protesting horrid working conditions and even worse pay. After Cleveland dispatched the National Guard to break up the strike, a riot broke out, and at least a dozen workers were killed. The only concession that workers got from the government was an extra Monday off work.
While unions made strong gains throughout the 20th century, like the 40-hour workweek, medical benefits, paid vacations, and the weekend, America has witnessed the slow, agonizing death of organized labor over the last several decades. As former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich noted in the below video, wages have declined at exactly the same rate as the percentage of workers affiliated with labor unions:
As of August 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there are at least 6.1 million part-time workers who are actively seeking full-time employment. This means that even though Labor Day is technically a national holiday, there will be millions of people who still have to clock in for the daily grind, who are given just under 40 hours a week by employers actively avoiding having to pay for full-time benefits. In 2013, Bloomberg reported that almost 40 percent of employers required employees to come to work on Labor Day.
By all means, eat, drink, and be merry on your long weekend. But always remember that as powerful as the corporate state may seem, the 80 percent of American adults living at or near the poverty line have the power to bring the wealthy elite to their knees in an instant by collectively denying them our labor and our dollars, which they depend on to maintain their power. All we have to do is organize to make it happen.
Tom Cahill is a writer for US Uncut based in the Pacific Northwest. He specializes in coverage of political, economic, and environmental news. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or friend him on Facebook.
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