COMMENTARY: The other Labor Day


May 1, May Day, is celebrated across the world as International Laborer’s Day or Labor Day, except in the United States of America. In 1884, labor organizations marked May 1, 1886, as the date by which the eight-hour work day would be the national standard. A general strike, where all workers would strike in support of an eight-hour work day, was planned in solidarity. After Chicago police fired into a crowd of workers confronting strikebreakers, anarchists organized a rally at Haymarket square to protest police repression. During the rally, a homemade bomb exploded and police fired into the crowds yet again. Eight men were arrested and promptly rushed through a kangaroo court, resulting in the ultimate execution of four of those men.

In 1893 Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld would posthumously pardon three of the men.

Originally designated as a day to commemorate the eight anarchists fighting for what has become standard in most of the United States, May Day’s presence in our historical consciousness has been lost to blatant attacks on historical memory and to distract us from remembering those who took a stand for the working class.

Fearful that the United States would fall to socialism, May 1 became “Americanization Day” in 1921 and eventually converted to “Loyalty Day” under president Eisenhower.

This shape-shifting of May Day from a commemoration of those who fought for the eight-hour workday into a day centered around loyalty to the United States attempts to hide the power of the working class.

The placing of the United States’ labor day in September attempts to create an artificial distance between U.S. workers and workers abroad. Despite these attempts to hide our history from us, we can still commemorate and remember.

There are clear consequences to forgetting our past, and that can be seen in the decline of the United States’ working-class.

In 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 5,147 workers died from traumatic injury on the job — nearly 14 workers a day.

This fails to include 95,000 workers who also die from occupational diseases. All in all, almost 275 workers die every year as a result of job injuries and illnesses.

These data further exclude many workers not protected under most labor laws: sex workers, domestic workers, undocumented workers and those who for one reason or another do not report injuries on the job.

While workers continued to die on the job, income inequality continues to grow. Thomas Piketty, economist of the Paris School of Economics and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley found that in 2017 “the top 1 percent of U.S. adults now earns on average 81 times more than the bottom 50 percent of adults; in 1981, they earned 27 times what the lower half earned.” As time progresses, we are retreating toward increased inequality akin to that of the age of robber barons of the 1800s.

This May Day, I urge readers to find some time to learn about the United States’ checkered labor history or that of global labor history. Whether it be the origins of unions in the United States, the United Farmworkers under César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, The Texas Farmworkers Union and Orendain, Emma Tenayuca and the Pecan Sheller’s strike, the United Food and Commercial Workers strike against Stop & Shop, the Red for Ed Strikes catching fire across the country, or of the maquiladora workers right across the border in Matamoros. Taking a day to learn our own history as working people will allow us to create a better world for all working people and to honor the memory of the brave people who died to give us basic rights at work.

Alán Díaz-Santana of McAllen is a history teacher and union leader in the Rio Grande Valley.