On the fourth of May, in 1886, at the corner of Des Plaines Street and West Randolph Street in Chicago, near the now infamous Haymarket Square, workers gathered in the rain to peacefully demonstrate against the police violently breaking up a strike the day before at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. Organized labor participated in the gathering in order to show solidarity and mark their support of the eight-hour workday, but the actions in Haymarket Square on May 4th were planned first and foremost to protest police brutality.
The police, as they often do, showed up in numbers to intimidate protesters and break up the event, which had lasted much longer than the Mayor and city officials could tolerate. At around 10:30pm, the armed line moved forward in formation, heightening the tension in the crowd of people still shaken by the previous day’s events. All of the sudden, a bomb was hurled toward the phalanx of policemen, killing one and injuring six others. Immediately, the police began shooting into the crowd of protesting workers
Officials blamed the entire bloody incident on the protest organizers. What’s worse is that three years later the Union League Club of Chicago, a pro-police political advocacy social club, erected a monument to the officer who died, co-opting the incident as an ode to the forces of law and order (the “union” in the name refers to the Civil War union, not labor unions).
Then, in July 1889, the Second International sought to turn the Haymarket incident into a cause célèbre for organized labor, but actually, that meeting was likely just as disingenuous. Alongside praising the sacrifices of labor, the internationalists systematically excluded anarcho-syndicalist groups who were mostly responsible for the Haymarket actions in the first place, as well as trade unions. Socialist politicians wanted to use the day as a memorial to labor, and yet they excluded labor’s real representatives from their own deliberations.
Nevertheless, the group of bourgeois socialist theorists declared May 1st to be May Day, in observation of the working class’ continued struggle against police disruption in their effort for fair pay and reasonable hours. Since then, May Day has been adopted around the world by governments willing to appreciate the sacrifices of labor, so long as labor stays in line.
The truth is that the legacy of May Day in the United States is like so many other things – observed as a passive opportunity to thank working class peoples for their continuous subjugation by the police, by business owners, by the powers of capital. It is the holiday equivalent of voting “blue no matter who” or using the actions of Colin Kaepernick only when it suits to bolster a snub-nosed argument. May Day has become a reified symbol of the systemic co-optation and belittlement of the working class’ continuous struggle against the forces that promote, enforce, and defend free market capitalism.
Liberals (namely white liberals), chanting, “Yas Queen!” to RBG and toasting Biden’s first 100 days will make a social media post referring to the importance of frontline workers, thanking them for working for grossly inappropriate wages. However, when the instagram re-posts disappear, so, too, will fall the veil of their superficial support. They’ll tell workers, “15 dollars an hour is a great goal, but it has to happen gradually.”
Liberalism is no friend of labor any more than conservatism, because it values too much the idea of free enterprise. They fail to see what economist Karl Polanyi argued in 1944, that with every action toward unfettered markets, there is a social reaction–meaning that markets can never truly be “free.” Liberalism’s goal, arguably mask-off since Reagan, has been to construct the domestic and global infrastructure needed to defang the social reaction. Liberalism, as much as conservatism, is in the business of obscuring the leftist history of the working-class victories we take for granted today against child labor, limits to the working day, social services, and minimum wages, among others, all while passively claiming credit for these progressive policies.
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This is why the Back the Blue rally in Warwick this May Day comes as no surprise to most leftists. Not only does May Day symbolize law enforcement’s historic opposition to organized labor, but it also symbolizes the hegemonic class’ co-optation of the labor movement. For example, in 1919 the Boston police utilized a tactic from labor’s toolbox by going on strike themselves. It didn’t take long for those in power to recognize the threat of police unionization, so they gave police the things they wanted: job security, collective bargaining, and an effective lobby, to name a few. In other words, when the police stick together, the powers that be take heed. When labor and BIPOC stick together, the market reacts using its well-paid and padded enforcement officers.
Warwick’s Back the Blue event is a middle finger to organized labor, belying the rhetoric of politicians like Patricia Morgan who claim to speak for the supposed “little guy.” The real little guy is labor, the working class, which has been asking police to step down and let them win concessions that they themselves won over a hundred years ago. The little guy(s) have had to defend their acts of civil disobedience against a hailstorm of people who would like to turn back the world clock to 1950. While the police, politicians, and CEOs have grown immensely in wealth and power since 1950, labor has seen a denigration of its power and influence—the concessions of the New Deal being gradually chipped away and passed to police budgets, government salaries, and private enterprise contracts.
So, if May Day is something you want to honor, we recommend thanking service workers and those frontline workers who were stabbed in the back during the pandemic, perhaps by giving them a generous tip, and if their work discourages tipping (like grocery store cashiers), bag your own groceries (and maybe bend a rule). This May 1st, May 4th, and forever, show solidarity with workers, and remember the fights and advocacy that won the rights that we enjoy. That is something worth backing.