Labor Not Loyalty on May 1

Two key steps have helped to ruin May Day in the United States.  First, Labor Day was created at a completely different time of year — labor day without the struggle, labor day without the history, labor day without the labor movement.  Second, Loyalty Day was created on May 1st.

Loyalty Day is a monstrosity for a few reasons.  We already have Veterans Day (created by ruining Armistice Day), Memorial Day, Yellow Ribbon Day, Patriots Day, Independence Day, Flag Day, Pearl Harbor Day, an Iraq-Afghanistan Wars Day (created, believe it or not, by Congress in 2011), and of course the xenophobic blood-curdling celebration of every September 11th.  That should be enough.  We already have a dangerous excess of loyalty.  According to the International Social Survey Programme, the United States is number 1 among nations in the percentage of its people who say that everyone should obey the law even when the law is unjust, and also number one in the percentage of people who say everyone should support this country even when it is wrong.  Conscious intentional harm.  Institutionalized stupidity.  How low can we go?  A 13-year-old girl in Pennsylvania was just punished for refusing to stand and robotically chant a fascistic Pledge of Allegiance.

This May Day is nine years since Bush declared Mission Accomplished in Iraq, and the hell of the war on Iraq really began.  It’s seven years since the Downing Street Memo was made public and the lies about Iraq really fell apart.  It’s six years since Nancy Pelosi publicly committed to not impeaching Bush or Cheney no matter what they did — and the hell that was to be whatever followed Bush and Cheney effectively began.  Loyalty Day has been a day for major public violations of the oath our public servants take to protect the Constitution.  Treason Day would be more accurate.

The alternative to loyalty that we need to develop is not treason or barbarism.  It’s participation in government of, by, and for — rather that upon, against, and onto — the people.  For that we need to be rid of Loyalty Day, and we need to replace it with what May 1st was always supposed to be: May Day.

Two key steps are helping to restore May Day to us.  First, recent immigrants from the rest of the world — which has continued to celebrate May Day even as we who began it have forgotten it — have brought it back as a day to demand rights for immigrants.  Second, the Occupy movement is building a broad movement combining demands for civil rights, economic rights, and peace.  And as part of that process, we are studying people’s history instead of the sort of history approved by the Texas School Board and other big buyers of lousy text books.

May Day in year 126 since May Day began is showing signs of out-shining the May Days we’ve seen for many years.  May Day is the commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre and the struggle for an 8-hour day in Chicago.

May Day had a long history in Europe as a seasonal celebration of rebirth and hope. It was also the first of a month, an ideal time for strikes in industrialized nineteenth-century America where workers tended to be paid at the end of the month. At its 1884 convention the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution that all labor would strike on May 1, 1886, to demand an eight-hour day. The media, which in this country has always been completely fair and balanced, predicted a violent Communist insurrection. The Chicago Tribune reported oh so responsibly: “Every lamp-post in Chicago will be decorated with a communistic carcass if necessary to prevent wholesale incendiarism or prevent any attempt at it.”

There were 62,000 workers in Chicago who committed to strike on May 1st.  Another 25,000 demanded an eight-hour day without threatening to strike.  And 20,000 were given the eight-hour day before May 1st. Meanwhile, the Armours, Swifts, Medills, Fields, and McCormicks (Chicago’s royalty, people who would have adored Loyalty Day) mobilized the National Guard, the Pinkertons, and specially deputized police.  Rahm Emanuel would have been proud.

Workers marched down Michigan Avenue in Chicago instead of working on May 1, 1886, and 340,000 did the same nationwide.

Leading activists Albert Parsons and August Spies spoke at the rally in Chicago, which ended peacefully. The Communist insurrection proved as real as Saddam Hussein’s long-range missiles.

But two days later, Chicago police shot striking workers outside McCormick Harvester Works, and labor leaders organized a protest in Haymarket Square for the next day. In the meantime, thousands of workers all over the country were winning the eight-hour day and returning to work.  If you have an 8-hour day today, you have them to thank for it.  Freedom is not free, as the saying goes.  It’s not created by wars.  It’s created by productive struggle.  And if you’ve lost the 8-hour day, you have our collective failure to keep up the struggle to blame.

As the relatively small and peaceful meeting at Haymarket Square was wrapping up, 180 policemen marched on the crowd, and a bomb went off — which many believe was thrown by an agent provocateur. The Chicago Tribune demanded that Parsons, Spies, and two others, Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden, be hanged for murder.

The police began smashing up labor offices and beating up innocent people. “Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards,” said Julius Grinnell, Chicago’s State’s Attorney.

The four men named above were indicted for murder, along with George Engel, Adolph Fisher, and Louis Lingg. Parsons, who had escaped, became a modern Socrates and turned himself in to face certain death. Testimony from “witnesses” who had been threatened with torture and others who had been paid turned out so contradictory that the prosecution shifted to a focus on the defendants’ thoughts and politics. Fielden and Schwab ended up with life sentences; Lingg died in his cell; the others were hung. Parsons left behind a note to his children that included this:

We show our love by living for our loved ones. We also prove our love by dying, when necessary, for them.

In 1888 the AFL set May 1, 1890, as the next major day of action. Workers all over Europe joined in, and a holiday worthy of the name was born.

This May Day, do what you can for Albert Parsons, for those you love, and for those who will come after us.  Do not work. Do not be loyal.  Do not be silent.  Be the change you want to see in the world.

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of and campaign coordinator for Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at and War Is a He hosts Talk Nation Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook. Read other articles by David.