When I was young, I was a socialist. It’s not something I admit often, because it’s not something I remember often. For whatever reason, when I think of myself as a teenager, I conjure up a naive, uninformed, vapid, and wholly insignificant character. I can recall having a silly crush on one particular teacher, giggling at the butt scene in Romeo & Juliet, running to the cafeteria for pasta Fridays, and goofing off in orchestra. For whatever reason, the past seven years have obscured what I really was: passionate, ambitious, optimistic, and ready to change the world.
I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. My first major historical research project was on the American labor movement, and I practically worshiped Kurt Vonnegut. I argued with my friends to the point of tears over the Equal Rights Amendment, universal health care, and gay marriage. I was fascinated by the populist movement, and my voice would waver with emotion as I quoted William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold and Huey Long’s Share the Wealth. If only I had kept a diary back then. Truly, it would have been epic.
But I’m not writing this post to talk about how cool I was in high school. I’m writing this post because we, as Americans, are so easily distracted by barbecues and any excuse to day-drink outside that we lose sight of our Very Important History. In a decade where corporations have been elevated to personhood, where we will celebrate businessmen like Donald Trump before we institute an actual living wage for workers, we need a real Labor Day more than ever. That’s why I’m writing this post: not to rain on your parade, but to give a brief history of the good-bad-and-ugly of why this day exists.
Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
– William Jennings Bryan, Cross of Gold, 1896 (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5354/)
It began in 1894, in the midst of both a railroad boom and an economic panic. The Pullman Palace Car Company cut its wages for factory workers, but failed to lower rents and prices in company towns. (You know, those charming little fiefdoms set up by wealthy businessmen so they could be like feudal lords and wring every last dollar out of their serf-like employees.) Unable to cope, thousands of workers organized a strike and left their jobs. In response, hundreds of thousands of railroad workers stepped up in solidarity and refused to handle Pullman cars. The strikes eventually turned violent and caught the attention of President Grover Cleveland, who sided with management and filed an injunction against the union leaders. U.S. Marshalls were enlisted in an attempt to force employees back to work, and the ensuing struggle resulted in dozens of casualties and arrests. Hoping to assuage tensions, President Cleveland instituted a national holiday in September to “celebrate workers.” We call it Labor Day.
While there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
– Eugene V. Debs, 1918
However, this new holiday was more an effort to save face than celebrate the American worker. The government desperately wanted to move away from the decades when the U.S. labor movement was one of the most militant in the world. In 1886, less than 10 years before the Pullman Strike, hundreds of thousands of workers marching in Chicago in support of an 8-hour work day were fired upon by police. This event, known as the Haymarket Massacre, would be commemorated worldwide on May 1st. Thus, when we think of May Day as a product of the U.S.S.R. and European socialism, we are sorely mistaken. May Day and the international celebration of the working class are as American as it gets.
What has become of the remainder of those things placed on the table by the Lord for the use of us all? They are in the hands of the Morgans, the Rockefellers, the Mellons…, and the Vanderbilts — 600 families at the most either possessing or controlling the entire 90 percent of all that is in America. They cannot eat the food, they cannot wear the clothes, so they destroy it. They have it rotted; they plow it up; they pour it into the rivers; they bring destruction through the acts of mankind to let humanity suffer; to let humanity go naked; to let humanity go homeless, so that nothing may occur that will do harm to their vanity and to their greed.
– Huey P. Long, Share the Wealth, 1935 (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/hueyplongshare.htm)
Holidays can be fun, but they are also a time for reverence and solemnity. In our country, we consistently direct our scorn downwards, to the so-called “Welfare Queens,” without noticing (or perhaps ignoring) the fact that 1% of the population, with its heavy hand on our necks, is robbing us of our future. The economic climate of our nation is remarkably similar to the great panics and depressions of the past. Technology is fast making manpower obsolete; the smallest portion of the population controls the greatest portion of the wealth; and the idea of an empowered working class is wrongly cast as un-American and un-Christian. What’s more, our movements today, like the movements of the past, are inherently intersectional. Civil rights, voting rights, labor rights–what we say it means to be an American–they are all connected. If we fail to recognize and learn from these similarities, we not only fail as a nation, we fail as human beings. So, before you go barbecue and mark the end of a summer well spent, spend a bit of time thinking about our country’s workers and raise a glass to the people who have (truly) made America great.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
– Jesus H. Christ, Sermon on the Mount