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May Day: While the World Celebrates Workers, the US Celebrates “Loyalty” and “Law“

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Let us mourn the loss of May Day here in the United States, and defy it by expressing solidarity with workers all over the world and gratitude that the US government’s shameless attempt to replace May Day with contrived expressions of obedience and propaganda has so utterly failed.

On May 1 – or May Day – citizens of more than 80 countries will officially celebrate some version of International Workers’ Day. Many more will do the same in an unofficial capacity. It is a day to thank and honor workers and the labor movement for their immense contributions to our societies.

Sadly, we can be certain that millions of Americans have never even heard about this, as May Day has never been seriously recognized in the United States and probably never will be, despite the fact that it was Chicago’s infamous Haymarket riots and their aftermath that became the inspiration for the holiday.

Not only is May Day not recognized here, but it was rejected with extreme prejudice by the US government, on the grounds that it had communist overtones and was too strident in its celebration of labor. During the height of the First Red Scare, in response to May Day, a bizarre idea called “Americanization Day” materialized, which by 1958 (following the Second Red Scare) evolved into an actual statutory reality known as “Loyalty Day,” a day “for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States.”

To make things weirder, around this same time, President Eisenhower codified into law an equally vacant and idiotic concept called “Law Day.” First proposed by the American Bar Association, “Law Day” was also meant, at least in part, to “suppress the celebration of May Day.” On “Law Day,” we are encouraged to celebrate the rule of law, for some reason.

May 1 is now a useless, Orwellian pseudo-holiday here in the United States, celebrating both “law” and jingoism, that most people don’t even know about (the various incarnations of “Loyalty Day” were briefly popular in the 1950s, but today, the extent of the “celebration” in the US is a few scattered local parades). It’s basically just a multifaceted attack against May Day and that strange, offensive notion that people other than wealthy capitalists occasionally deserve recognition for their work.

President Obama, of course, could not possibly risk damaging his centrist street cred by mentioning May Day. In the past, he has offered a series of platitudes in celebration of “Law Day,” despite refusing to actually enforce the law when it comes to the killers and torturers of the Bush administration, or the economic criminals of Wall Street who will likely spend May 1 sipping their finest champagne after toasting to the nearly completed demolition of the American labor movement.

Then, in 2013, by way of an utterly vacuous proclamation, the president reaffirmed that May 1 shall be known as “Loyalty Day.” He would prefer that you display your flag and recite the pledge. Ironically, while Obama was busy with that, protesting workers in Costa Rica spent their May Day burning cardboard cutouts of the American president over his support for, among other things, neoliberal trade policies designed to increase corporate profits, and the continued embargo on Cuba.

Thankfully, “Law Day” and “Loyalty Day” – it’s difficult to even write the latter without cringing – continue to be largely ignored by the public. The text of the law codifying “Loyalty Day” shows that its architects hoped it would resonate throughout the country:

(1) calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Loyalty Day; and

(2) inviting the people of the United States to observe Loyalty Day with appropriate ceremonies in schools and other suitable places.

The inexplicably ungrateful American people seemed to have declined this invitation. Tell a friend about “Loyalty Day” and you will likely be met with confusion and laughter. The manufactured jingoist hysteria that was supposed to capture the people every May 1 never really materialized.

Nevertheless, the extreme nationalists who came up with these hideous ideas did succeed in relegating May Day to the ashes of American history. Instead, we have Labor Day, which is watered down enough that the ruling class tolerates it (not all of the ruling class, of course: Eric Cantor famously declared, without shame, that Labor Day was actually a day to celebrate owners and managers).

Not that American workers have much to celebrate. Unions have been beaten into submission: Fewer than 7% of private sector workers now belong to a union; membership peaked at around 35% in the 1950s. Workers’ voices are effectively shut out of the political process; a recent, high-profile study out of Princeton University showed that the United States’ political system is, for all intents and purposes, oligarchical, with wealth and influence being all that really count when it comes to shaping policy.

On May 1, then, let us mourn the loss of May Day here in the United States, and defy it by expressing solidarity with not just American workers, but, as the spirit of the holiday dictates, workers all over the world. That spirit of solidarity cannot be killed by any government proclamation. Let us also be grateful that the US government has failed so miserably in its shameless attempt to replace May Day, a venerable institution, with contrived national expressions of obedience and propaganda.

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