One hundred and thirty one years ago, anarchists in Chicago were rounded up by cops after a demonstration at Haymarket Square turned violent. The peaceful protest was well-attended by Chicago’s workers, but sometime before midnight the cops set upon on the crowd and forced them to disperse. Someone — we’ll never know who, or where their allegiances lay, whether they were a true saboteur or a rank provocateur — threw a bomb at the advancing cops. Seven of them were killed. In the chaos that ensued, four workers were shot by the cops and nearly a hundred more wounded.
Chicago then violently suppressed labor activities and arbitrarily arrested anyone with radical sympathies. Of those rounded up, eight anarchists were arrested, one sentenced to 15 years in prison, four others executed — none of whom were even accused of throwing the bomb.
This is not to say they were not genuine militants. As German-born anarchist Louis Lingg said in his own defense upon his arrest, “I couldn’t have thrown that bomb. I was at home making bombs.” (Lingg committed suicide in his cell rather than be executed, using — gruesomely but what else? — a blasting cap in his mouth.)
May Day is a reminder that the struggle for the rights of workers and the control of the means of production has been going on for our entire lives, for over a century. It’s a history that we have to go out of our way to learn about because it’s not taught in schools. The unions — which used to be the means of transmitting this alternate narrative of American history from one generation to the next — have been dismantled or subsumed by the corporatist Democratic party. It’s on us to unearth our forgotten history, as if we were excavating an ancient ruin in our own backyard. The right to a lunch break, to a weekend, to a 40-hour work week, to safety standards — we have these things today because our predecessors demanded them, got harassed and fired, got arrested, got their heads caved in by truncheons, got executed. Our rights are not granted to us by God, nor are they guaranteed by the Constitution or the state. Our rights are won through struggle against our capitalist managers.
This is also a time to consider that the traditional image of the worker as a white man in blue denim overalls is a crude caricature of who the radical labor movement represents. For starters, in all industries roughly half of the population is paid less for equal work; women are workers. And women working in a patriarchal society are still made to be responsible for various forms of labor that are outside of the wage system. Pregnancy, childbearing and -rearing, home maintenance, cooking, cleaning — all of these things are work, but husbands and bosses do not deem this kind of work worthy of compensation.
There are also over 2.5 million people incarcerated in American prisons right now, most of whom are forced to “volunteer” as call center operators, seamstresses and cutters for retail fashion, agricultural workers, even firefighters. They get paid pennies per hour at a fraction of the minimum wage. Like the sharecroppers and slaves of the past, inmates who are forced to work are overwhelmingly, disproportionately, black Americans. Black people who are not disappeared into the private prison apparatus are still dealt with severely, through red-lining and segregation and summary police execution and brutality and all the other terrorist tactics of an apartheid state.
And of course there are immigrants who came to this country to work and who pay a huge amount of their income into the American tax system while withdrawing no benefits. Social security is to considerable extent kept afloat by the State’s ability to extract income tax from immigrants who never will be able to collect on it later. These workers also face some of the cruelest and most degrading humiliations by bosses, who know an immigrant’s second-class or non-existent ‘citizenship’ can be exploited. Most immigrants in the United States are from the Spanish-speaking parts of this conquered and stolen American continent, many of whom came here to flee the chaos that results from perpetual interference and invasion by the United States.
Women, black folks, immigrants, inmates — these are the American workers. Yes, I’m a worker, too, a white and white-collar clerk. So is my father, a white man who works with machines and with electronics and with his hands. But we must not let the neoliberal stooges and defenders of capital define the ‘worker’ for us using this old white-washed cartoon. They use this to trick people into thinking they are the truly intersectional, truly diverse coalition. As is so often the case in American politics, the reality is the exact opposite of what the liberal pundit class would have you believe.
But even the recently elevated ‘left’ figures like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Keith Ellison are completely blind to the largest demographic of the working class: everybody else living on Earth. There are ghettos in every city in the capitalist world. There are sweat shops and plantations and other dungeons of worker exploitation wherever America has installed a local mafioso — from South Korea to South Sudan, from Kenya to the Caribbean. Our pledge of solidarity cannot be limited by the color of a person’s passport anymore than it can be limited to the color of a person’s skin. The United States believes that its resources, human and material, just happen to be located in places that are not in the United States. The tobacco may be in Brazil, but it’s American Spirit. The clothing may be made in Bangladesh but it’s American Apparel. The oil may be in Iraq, but it’s Amoco now. In a totalitarian class society where all things are monetized and all people divided into worker and boss, the world has been turned into a sweatshop. American militarism is the brutal fist of capital. Step off the line, and you will be removed from the workplace for good.
What the police inflicts upon the workers of this country, the US military does to the workers everywhere else. You need only to look at the confused and shady act of violence that kicked off the Haymarket affair to understand how Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin, Iraq’s nuclear arsenal, and the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria were used as an excuse for massive aggression against anyone who challenges American supremacy.
In other words, you must be anti-sexist to be pro-worker. You must hate racism to love unions. You cannot structure a society where commodities are free to cross borders but human beings are not. And there can be no true workers’ movement without a total and vociferous renunciation of American militarism. A revolution is anti-imperialist, or it is not a revolution.
No War But Class War. Happy May Day.