COVID-19 Underscores Why We Need to Make May Day Radical Again

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs and health care in the midst of the pandemic lockdown and people are, reasonably, looking for someone or something to blame for their hardship. Meanwhile, right-wing media, Republican politicians and their Tea Party-funded “grassroots” allies are directing fury and desperation toward various scapegoats: Chinese people, the World Health Organization, state governments. Anything that will distract people from blaming capitalist greed and power relations themselves or the decades of austerity measures that have disintegrated social safety nets. Rallies “against excessive quarantine,” attended by “alt-right” (white nationalist) militias, conspiracy theorists and seemingly middle-class people who feel inconvenienced have ensued.

As some modern-day rally-goers demand that the workforce return to drudgery, over 130 years ago around this time, people risked their lives fighting for decreased hours and increased wages at the workplace. These struggles inspired the International Workers’ Day, which is widely celebrated globally on May 1, but typically fringe in the United States. This year, however, bands of working people are saying enough is enough. Thousands of Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, Shipt and Instacart workers are walking off the job this May Day calling for better protections, increased pay and an expansion of paid sick leave for vulnerable workers.

While May Day isn’t generally widely recognized in the United States, the sacrifices of U.S. workers largely inspired the holiday. The realization of an eight-hour work day had been a priority for industrial workers since at least the 1860s. On October 7, 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions kicked off a campaign that set May 1, 1886, as the deadline for this demand to be met.

“One of the great errors in the arrangement of industrial society, to-day is the long period of daily labor,” a labor leader said at an international conference in Chicago just before the big day. “It breaks men down and shortens their lives and makes them miserable. If the evils arising from this could but be removed injustice and poverty, which are the parents of all crimes, would cease to exist.”

Influenced by anarchism and socialism, some radicals and industrial workers called for revolution beyond the eight-hour work day, and encouraged people to take control of their workplaces. “Whether a man works eight hours a day or ten hours a day, he is still a slave,” anarchist Samuel Fielden wrote in the anarchist newspaper Alarm. The paper called for “Workingmen to arms! War to the palace, peace to the cottage, and death to luxurious idleness!”

On the lead up to May 1, tens of thousands of workers walked off the job. Railway workers shut down the entire train system.

Days later, on May 4, in response to police killings of picketing workers, thousands gathered in Haymarket Square in Chicago for a fiery anti-capitalist demonstration. Toward the end, Fielden took the stage: “Legislation will never help you, never. [Democrat] Martin Foran went to Congress in the interest of labor, and he tells you that no legislation can be had for the workingmen…. When the rich man understands that it is not healthy to live among a lot of discontented workmen we shall be able to get legislation and not before.”

As Fielden continued, police moved in to forcefully disperse the crowd. At that moment, an unknown person threw a bomb at the police, killing several. The police responded by firing at the crowd indiscriminately, wounding hundreds and killing at least eight civilians.

Throughout May, hundreds of thousands of outraged, class-conscious railroad workers, cabinetmakers, drivers, wagon makers, gas workers, auto mechanics and others went on a general strike, demanding an eight-hour work day, better wages and safer working conditions.

Meanwhile, authorities arrested eight prominent anarchists and socialists while claiming they conspired to throw the bomb, despite a lack of evidence. The trial was rigged, and the “Haymarket eight” were found guilty. Four were hanged and one committed suicide before his hanging. The trials were so widely criticized that a governor overturned the convictions years later, and described the trial as the most rigged trial he had ever seen in the United States.

The annual global celebration of May 1 as International Workers’ Day inspires strikes each year. Still, it took decades of striking and direct action to win the eight-hour work day in the United States.

As the labor movement continued to swell, mainstream media, politicians and profiteers rebranded May Day as “Americanization Day” in 1921. In 1921, the Oklahoma newspaper The Ardmore Statesman explained, “The fact that led to the selection of this date — just preceding May first — is that the first of May is usually selected by the disciples of unrest for their manifestations against the principles of orderly government and good citizenship, and the advocacy of communism, socialism, and bolshevism.” In 1958, in the midst of the “red scare,” Congress enacted a law formally recognizing May 1 as “Loyalty Day.”

Rebranding facilitated the erasure of May Day’s radical roots from Americans’ collective historical memory. Throughout the mid-to-late 1900s, the corporate siege against — and political indifference toward — the labor movement was carried out quietly with media corporation, according to Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s classic book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. They explain how mainstream media functions under a “propaganda model,” whereby journalism, monopolized by the capitalist class, internalizes the ideology of the market. Consumers soak up the ideology because they aren’t provided with alternatives: “The public is not sovereign over the media — the owners and managers, seeking ads, decide what is to be offered, and the public must choose among these. People watch and read in good part on the basis of what is readily available and intensively promoted.”

Why would managers of multibillion-dollar industries share anti-capitalist history or news that may inspire action and undermine their profits? Ultimately, we are left unable to imagine alternatives beyond capitalism. This lens helps us analyze the emergence of the “Against Excessive Quarantine” rallies. While these rallies remain small, without alternatives, there’s a risk that they will grow: we cannot demand what we cannot imagine.

COVID-19 has opened up workers’ imaginations. “What I’ve seen in the past two months, I’ve never seen before,” a lead organizer of the Whole Foods walkout told Motherboard, the online magazine and video channel produced by VICE. “It’s a mass awakening of workers.”

In the rebellious spirit of May Day, as crises continue to unfold, it’s time for dissidents and people seeking a life worth living to situate ourselves within this broad, historical labor movement. Capitalism may not crumble tomorrow, but clear alternatives — worker control, free housing and food, care and solidarity over competition — will embolden working people to reject the return to a life of precarious drudgery.