Monday, May 23, 2011

A Celebration of International Labor Day: Working Together to Transform the World

Sunday, May 1, 2011
By: Carl Levine, Guest Blogger and brother of Daniella Levine

My friends and collaborators, I can think of no better way to celebrate May Day than here with you.

May Day, is celebrated in almost every country around the world as a day of international working class solidarity.  It is an official holiday in nearly 100 nations.

As you probably know, it is not an officially recognized holiday in this country.
What you may not know is that May 1st has been recognized by the federal government as both Loyalty Day and Law Day.

This shows how seriously the American ruling class takes the symbolism of May Day.  How seriously it takes the threat that international labor solidarity might succeed in transcending national chauvinism.

For the ruling elite it was not enough to refuse to recognize May Day.  Not enough to pick a date in September to celebrate a national, rather than an international labor day.

It also felt compelled, in 1921, to designate May 1st as “Americanization Day,” renamed “loyalty day” in 1958 by an act of Congress.  Loyalty Day is designated as a day for “reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.” 

The United States, alone with Canada, celebrates labor day in September. 

The adoption of a distinct date for America’s labor day was a deliberate decision.  It was motivated by the fear of what might result if American workers discovered their unity of interest with their sisters and brothers in other countries.

Ironically, May Day has its roots in the United States.

So, I’ll begin with a bit of history:

On May 1, 1886, exactly 125 years ago today, a nation-wide strike commenced in support of the 8 hour work day.  The strike was called by a broad alliance of labor groups.  Over 200,000 workers walked off the job: black and white, women and men, workers from many different national backgrounds.  In Chicago 80,000 went on strike.

The first day, which fell on a Saturday, a workday, was largely peaceful. When the strike resumed on Monday May 3rd, the bosses fought back.  Many strikers were beaten by the police and hired thugs, and several were shot.  In response a mass rally was called for the next day in Haymarket Square.  The ensuing events have come to be known as the Haymarket Massacre. 
While the police were breaking up what had been a peaceful rally, an unknown person, possibly an agent provocateur, threw a bomb at the police lines.  The police responded by opening fire on the protestors.  Many were killed. Over the next few days many more striking workers were jailed, beaten and shot throughout the country.

Several of the leaders of the strike were ultimately convicted in connection with the bombing, and hung.  They were executed even though they were on the stage, in plain view, when the bomb was thrown.  The prosecution claimed that they were guilty because they hadn’t actively discouraged the bombing before it happened. 

3 years later the First Congress of the Second Socialist International, held in Paris, adopted May 1st as an international labor day, in commemoration of the workers massacred at Haymarket.  On May 1, 1890 demonstrations were held in America and Europe and International May Day was born.

A few years later, in 1894, federal troops were used to brutally suppress a wave of militant strikes in the rail industry.  With a federal election approaching, America’s Labor Day, celebrated in September, was created, as a sop to widespread working class outrage. 

The story of the struggle for economic justice is not one of power yielding in the face of reason and morality.  Countless women and men have been jailed, beaten, and killed, fighting for a better life for themselves and their children. 

The gains that have been won have been won through the courage of working people united in common purpose.  They have faced what must often have seemed to be insurmountable power, and concerted efforts to divide them, and they have triumphed. 

But, as we see all too clearly today – these hard-fought-for gains, insufficient as they may be, are never secure, are always under attack, always subject to reversal.

The laws that protect workers and unions are weak.  And these laws, weak as they are, have come under increasing assault.  Enforcement is also often lax.   Violations of health and safety standards, are rampant, penalties so minimal that companies view the fines, when levied at all, as just a small additional cost of doing business. 

Laws governing the right to unionize are also weak.  Companies can often defeat organizing drives simply by firing union leaders.  They know that even if they are ultimately found guilty, often years later, the fines they will have to pay are less costly than paying union wages. 

In this country someone can work full time and still only earn $15,000 a year.  Countless parents rarely see their children because they are forced to work two or more jobs to pay basic bills.  Millions of uninsured families are still just one illness away from homelessness.  And life is even harder for undocumented immigrant workers, many of whom, faced with the fear of deportation, are forced to work in near servitude. 
But the nature of the oppression experienced by working people goes beyond the fact that they must often toil for far too long for far too little recompense. 

As Kahlil Gibran so beautifully describes it, in the excerpt read earlier: Work should be, can be, a joyful thing, an expression and manifestation of love. There is a real sense in which we sustain ourselves, re-create ourselves, through our work, in interaction with others, and the bounty of the earth. 

But try telling that to someone who is treated more like a machine than a human being, someone forced to wreck their body on a sped-up assembly line in order to pay the rent, someone who performs stoop labor in a pesticide laden strawberry field, or even someone who lovingly cares for the sick and elderly as a home attendant, but who cannot afford health care for themselves or their own children.  

Rather than working together as a community to sustain ourselves, with love and cooperation, we are forced to sell our labor on the open market to brokers who far too often treat it as no more than a commodity, who far too often deny our humanity. 

Work may be an expression of love, but far  too often it is also suffering, oppression and alienation.

Faced with the pain and suffering which too often characterize our lives, and the lives of our neighbors, near and far, we have a choice: We can abandon ourselves to despair.  We can try to block out and deny this suffering.  We can wait for a promised better world in the hereafter.  Or we can actively engage the pain of this world. 

The choice to engage the world’s suffering, in all its varied forms, may seem overwhelming.  But it need not be so.  Working for social and economic justice is, after all, truly an example of labor as love.  It can allow us to live amidst the pain of the world without that pain numbing our spirits.  By reinforcing our bonds to one another and our shared hopes for the future, this work can engender strength and even joy.

As I see it, people are neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically evil.  Being kind, cooperative and caring, however, does seem to lead to happier lives.  It is often the poor, those with the smallest hordes to protect, who are the most generous.  Those who are greedy and mean usually live in personal misery regardless of how much wealth they accumulate. 

Will we succeed in building a better world?  I don’t know. But I do know this: Nothing stays the same.  The world is dynamic, not static.  If things do not get better, they will surely get worse.  And we must believe that a better world is possible, and throw ourselves into the struggle to make this vision a reality, or else we doom ourselves to the alternative. 

Today, on May Day, on Loyalty Day, we are called upon to confront that which would needlessly divides us from our sisters and brothers around the world.  We are called upon to look beyond both personal and national borders.

Nationalism is used today, as it has always been used, to divide the people of the world.  We are taught to identify with the countries where we live.  But what, after all, are countries?  Often little more than artificial constructs.  In some parts of the world mere reflections of the history of colonial conquest.

Nations are defined by coercive borders superimposed over the lives of real people.

We are taught that our loyalty is owed to those who live within the same borders as us, even those who exploit us and suppress our freedoms.  But what of those in other countries who more closely share our dreams of economic and social justice, or our vision of a more cooperative and ethical world?

To the extent that we are deceived - by national chauvinism, or other forms of chauvinism such as those based on religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation, we are divided from those with whom we might make common cause.  We are blocked from discovering the enormity of the power we possess as working people, and their allies, united across all artificial barriers.

And we are divided from our own true selves, the part of ourselves capable of reveling in common cause and community.  The part that understands that our own liberation is inextricably linked to the liberation of our sisters and brothers.  The part that understands, even on the level of raw instinct, that we are a social species who live in and through community.

I say to you, to quote that wonderful poet Adrienne Rich:

“I will not be divided from you or from myself by myths of separation.”

The cooperative struggle for social justice is personally transformative.  Working together to improve the world, we move beyond ourselves and our own narrow circles. 

Even when we lose skirmishes we gain strength, building our communal bonds, discovering and nurturing that which unites us.  And this prepares us for the battles to come, gives us the strength to continue the unending process of transforming ourselves, our communities and our world.

What role can the labor movement play in the struggle to transform the world? 

Most of us know something of what the labor movement has achieved historically: The enactment of child labor laws, minimum wage and hours laws, the creation of rudimentary safety standards, the provision of health and retirement benefits for most unionized workers, the weekend. 

But there are some who say that unions are no longer necessary, or worse, that they are an obstacle to growth.

My response to claims that unions are no longer relevant or necessary, raised primarily by individuals who profit from the oppression of working people, is as follows. 

•The idea that this is a middle class nation is a myth. 

•The wealthy have had their wealth increase exponentially, while poverty has increased and the middle class has shrunk. 

•America saw its lowest rate of poverty in 1973.  Since then GDP has increased by nearly 100% in real terms, but overall, the rate of poverty has also increased. 

•Corporate profits are at all time records, and so in inequality. 

•A smaller percentage of America’s GDP goes to wages today, and a higher percentage to corporate profits, that at any time since these statistics were first collected in the 1940s.

•Despite America’s vast wealth, which is more than sufficient to provide for the basic needs of all those who live here, a higher proportion of American children live in poverty than in Poland, Greece or Hungary, countries whose per capita incomes are far lower than ours. 

The United States has the lowest rate of unionization among the “so-called” industrialized democracies.  It also, not coincidentally, has more poverty, greater income disparity and less social mobility. 

Class warfare is a reality - and the wealthiest among us, who claim we are being divisive when we challenge the vast inequities that exist in this nation, have been winning this war for far too long. 

A reinvigorated labor movement, allied with progressive community based organizations, is the only way forward.  As oppressed and exploited as working people may be, they hold the keys to their own liberation.  Without their labor, without the wealth they create, the exploiting classes of the world would be powerless.

That said, the labor movement is far from perfect.  It has too often sabotaged its own stated goal of uniting workers by fanning divisions between workers: Between skilled and unskilled, foreign-born and native, black and white, women and men.  Many unions have failed to maintain basic democratic rights for their members, and others have succumbed to outright corruption and mob domination.  During the cold war much of the labor movement was far too willing to be co-opted by the federal government - lending support to the Vietnam war, the coup in Chile, and witch hunts against progressive activists in this country. 

Yet despite these historical failings, unions have also done more to improve the lot of poor black, women and immigrant workers than any other institution.  And today there are segments of the labor movement that are working hard to overcome many of its past failings.  Elements of the movement are assertively organizing new workers, and are often on the front line of the struggle against racism and sexism.  Some unions are also immersed in the important struggle for immigrant rights, and many have negotiated protections for lesbian and gay workers. 

The American labor movement is also now more willing to ally itself with the international working class even if this means building alliances with foreign unions that oppose American policies. 

Unions, when progressive and democratic, can help working people to improve their economic conditions, and indirectly the economic conditions of those who are not unionized.  They are also in a unique position to lead the movement for broader political change.

There is a reason why Hitler’s first victims were the parties of the left and the trade unions.  Hitler understood that the left, allied with the labor movement, was the only force that had the power to stand in the way of his right-wing agenda. 

Just two months before he was appointed Chancellor in January of 1933, the Communist and Social Democratic parties, combined, outpolled the Nazis in parliamentary elections. But for tragic divisions within the German left that prevented an alliance, the parties of the left and the unions could have stopped the rise of Nazism.

I don’t mean to suggest that what we face today can be equated with the Nazi movement in Germany in the 1930s and 40s.  But there are elements of fascism in the right-wing populism sweeping America today.  And we can learn from the German experience.

The Nazis understood that the labor movement was their biggest obstacle.  The right-wing in this country apparently understands this as well.  It is imperative that progressive forces in this country also understand the role that organized labor can and must play.  Even union members, and the unions themselves, often fail to grasp the centrality of their political role.

If it can unite people in the struggle for economic justice, the labor movement holds the potential for overcoming the pervasive sense of powerlessness that pervades so much of our society.  It holds the promise of helping people learn, that when they work together towards shared goals,  they can change the world for the better. 

On May Day I invite you to come, with joy in your hearts, and join this movement to change the world.


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