In most other corners of the world, May 1st is recognized as Labor Day. But in the US, our Labor Day occurs in September. Assigning one of the less enjoyable aspects of humanity a spring holiday has the effect of brightening an otherwise depressing idea. In America, we kick off fall and the subsequent winter doldrums with Labor Day, the meteorological equivalent of heading back into the dark, dank coal mine. May Day–the first of May–was once a spring festival day, another inheritance from Germanic and Norse traditions. Some still spin around the Maypole and crown a May Queen in affectations of quaint nostalgia. But in the modern sense, May 1 is a memorial day for working people everywhere in the world, except the US. How did Labor Day end up in September? And how did labor become such a hated idea in the American political life?
American politicians have spent the lifetime of the republic afraid of the collective power of the people. John Adams and his Federalists referred to this as “the mob.” Rebellions are always led by citizen groups, and in the US, we’ve tolerated only one citizen-led rebellion, in 1776. When Scots-Irish wanted to assert their rights to distill their own spirits, they led a small rebellion against President Washington and the new government in 1791, Washington himself commanded the army that dispersed the rebellion led by his former comrades in arms against the British, the first and only time a sitting US president led a command from the front (rather than the White House Situation Room.) But, I digress.
The First Labor Day
In 1884, the divide between the very wealthy and very poor was even greater than today. Workers, influenced in part by the socialist writings of Marx but also earlier American utopianists like the British immigrant Robert Owen of Indiana, began to organize into unions. In the post-Civil War years, American industry grew exponentially as immigrant workers from abroad took on jobs in the factories of major cities. Those immigrant workers brought with them an anti-authoritarian, anti-class spirit, especially Germans, who escaped the creation of an imperial Germany after their 1848 revolution. Forty years of American assimilation did not deter German-speaking laborers in major cities from demanding a classless society and worker equity. Working conditions in factories of the time are well-known, 12-18 hour work days, seven days a week, child labor, and no concept of occupational hazards or human resource management. 1880’s America was what 21st Century China is now.
At the time, workers’ unions were violently put down, often using local police forces to do the dirty work. Demonstrations reached a fevered pitch when, on May 4, 1884, protesters gathered on Haymarket Square in Chicago, calling for a fixed eight-hour work day. In the hysteria, there was an explosion. Police believed fringe anarchists bombed the square, the protestors maintained it was a capitalist conspiracy. Seven policemen and four protestors died in the melee. To take up the cause of those who died, the Socialist International declared May 1 to be the International Workers Day—or Labor Day. It is hard to believe with 21st century eyes that people were willing to die for the right to an eight hour work day.
This move was unwelcome in American society. After all, the late 1800’s were the American Gilded Age, and then-president Grover Cleveland owed his razor thin electoral victory to the titans of industry at that time. Cleveland was the only democrat elected to the presidency between James Buchanan and Woodrow Wilson. He knew that the power center was center-right in American politics. And so, to avoid setting off a socialist labor movement in the US, he declared the first Monday in September to be the American Labor Day, cleaving the US observance from the international socialist observance and offering a bone to the rabid masses long after the international day. Every effort was made to minimize the Haymarket massacre in the American experience.
To this day, May 1—International Workers Day, or Labour Day—honors the eight-hour work day, something that is severely eroded in American life today. While the Adamson Act in 1916 established the eight hour work day, and the Fair Labor Standards Act established the idea of the 40 hour work week with overtime pay, those laws have since been circumvented. Salaried employees are exempt—a trade-off for having a guaranteed income over hourly or piece-rate wage. With that exemption comes unwritten rules—as salaried employees can find themselves working more hours per week without overtime. Contracted employees are often exempt, as the contract is viewed as the binding document—a law unto itself. Retail employees often work above and beyond to earn commission on top of their base. Americans have seemingly cashed in their productivity not for more leisure, but perhaps the pursuit of avarice instead.
Not all countries behave this way, and in fact, are more productive with fewer hours in the office. According to yearly polls by the banking giant UBS, the French, who work 1453 hours a year have a GDP-per hour of $25.10 an hour. In America, we work 1792 hours a year and have a GDP per hour of $24.60. So, the French do more with less time at work, and do just fine as the 18th largest economy in the world. Not to mention the Germans, who also have mandated short work weeks, and are the 3rd largest economy in the world, behind the US and slave-labor China. Put another way, the French are working an average of 30 hours a week over a 50-week work year, and the US is working 35 hours a week over a 50 week work year. It is a little worse than that though—the French have a mandated 5 weeks-vacation per year while most Americans, if they have a two week vacation leave, will not take it nor will not avoid their BlackBerries while on vacation for fear of missing something back at the office. Some call this a freedom—a freedom to work as much as you want. And others say any tampering with the status quo could hemorrhage jobs–an obvious red herring in the face of global productivity from our European competitors. But I imagine those that say such things have no understanding of what it is to labor with their hands, in retail or in middle management.
Such talk would have roiled Senator Joe McCarthy, the obtuse drunken Cold War senator from Wisconsin, who launched into an irrational persecution of labor movements in the 1950’s. At the time, the US had rightly elected Eisenhower as president—the ur-cold warrior and greatest tactician we have ever produced. Eisenhower was the perfect foil against Stalinism—a completely different political construct that socialism. Most people, when mentioning a fear of communism mean to say Stalinism–the totalitarian, murderous tyrannical form of government. The USSR was an existential threat to the US, with its assertion of dominion over Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin American. Stalin was using the mantle of Marx and Lenin to hide his totalitarian grip on the USSR. He murdered his opposition. Like any utopian ideal, the wheels come off quickly in the hands of men. And so, we did have a Red Scare. We had a legitimate global problem off our shores.
But McCarthy, a real poll hound, got votes by Red-baiting the American public into thinking that any collective actions were essentially the same as “communism.” (McCarthy may be the singular person to blame for conflating communism, Stalinism, Marxism and Socialism as all the same thing.) A lot of politicians used this tactic back in the 1950s, including Richard Nixon. McCarthy and others quickly recast the US away from anything that favored populist or union activities. Unions were investigated for their anti-business whining for worker’s rights. Academics and artists works were scrutinized with a filter for perceived communist sympathies. Musicians and actors were blacklisted from practicing their art. The House “Un-American Activities” Committee began its inquisition into the First Amendment. The era of the individual–free to make choices, free to suffer consequences and loyal to the patriotic company store was back in style. And some of the by-products of those days—“In God We Trust” on our currency, the Pledge of Allegiance and Loyalty Day—remain with us, their origins obscured.
Loyalty Day? In the US, May 1st is officially “Loyalty Day.” Signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1958, the day is set aside to reaffirm our loyalty to the American ideal. More importantly, it was established to forever put a wedge between the international Labor Day and the US. Now, May 1 also happened to be a day when the Soviets liked to display all of their missiles in Red Square in the largest euphemism ever created by men. (geriatric old farts in awe of many a phallus being erected by heavy machinery, doing what they can no longer do, but I digress again). As America fell behind the Soviets in the early days of the Cold War, it is perhaps understandable that our leaders wanted to detract from the might of the Soviet Union and their display of missiles on May 1 with a day of our own. But that wasn’t the reason for why Loyalty Day came to be–fealty to jingoism was more important than to fellow laborers. American labor was to be celebrated as something unique, set aside from an international labor movement. Exceptional even, without peer.
While not an official holiday or bank holiday, US presidents have declared the Loyalty Day since 1958—Clinton and Obama included. An interesting note, Eisenhower himself declined to commemorate the day in his last two years in office, perhaps because McCarthyism had imploded, the witch hunt was no longer popular and the right to dissent is a first amendment protection. His precedent remains un-followed, for 25 years after the Cold War, the White House continues to proclaim a holiday that several generations of Americans have never heard of.
Labor Day in some ways is a farce in America; an old idea long lost in the economic juggernaut. We do not, as a culture, mourn the Haymarket martyrs nor celebrate the great American economic backbone–the Middle Class. We take the day off, or most of us do if our employers allow. Plenty of people work on Labor Day. It is as if the idea of honoring Labor movements, the winning of improved working conditions, occupational safety, work-life balance and time with family are unsavory and unpatriotic. And yet, standing up and demanding a right is the most patriotic thing we can do as citizens.
John Steinbeck once riffed that the reason why labor and other socialist-democratic movements never took deep root in the US was “because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” There is some truth to that, seeing how easy it is in modern America to put on the affectations of wealth through credit spending, leasing BMWs and composing well-crafted selfies on facebook. As a society, we could revisit this holiday, which has become nothing more than the last grilling-out day in September for millions of Americans. We could think of the eroding middle class and find a way back to that 1950’s era of prosperity, that came through the collective buying power of the middle class and not through a gilded oligarchy. We could join ranks with other nations and rightly celebrate the re-birth of our economy in May, rather than its fall in September, by honoring labor’s contribution to the right to leisure that we all can enjoy.
We have no need for Loyalty oaths or Loyalty days. They smack of control over the minds of men. Americans have preternatural fidelity–we know we have a good thing every day. Even the worst of us is better off than the rest of the planet, or at least the worst of other countries. Official duty days are the very exercise of the totalitarian, demanding blind loyalty to a narrow interpretation of the nation’s history and culture. This reminds me of North Korea, not the US. No, the tribute to labor is not the status quo, it is aspirational. And since when did we want to stop being aspirational?
French Riviera Beach Bums: irene. / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Bellamy Salute, American Flag: http://www.nww2m.com/2012/06/i-pledge-allegiance/