May Day and the American Working Class

Every May Day, millions of workers around the world celebrate International Workers’ Day—the original Labor Day. Here in the U.S., Labor Day is officially celebrated in September, and has all but lost its original political and class character. It is seen by many as little more than an end-of-summer barbecue. But the real origins of May Day can be traced right here to the United States and the bitter struggles of working men and women for better wages, rights, conditions, and the eight-hour day.

On May 1st, 1886, tens of thousands of workers—many of them immigrants—held militant rallies across the country. The movement was particularly strong in Chicago, and two days later, police shot and killed four workers on a picket line. At a rally held the next day to commemorate the victims, a bomb was thrown by an agent provocateur which killed seven policemen. The police responded by killing several workers and injuring hundreds more. This has become known as the “Haymarket Riot.”

In the following weeks, the police carried out systematic raids on strikers and trade unionists, breaking up meetings with violence. Several workers’ leaders were framed, tried, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. In the years that followed, it became a tradition that every May Day, workers around the world would strike and demonstrate for the 8-hour day. Many countries eventually made it an official holiday so that workers wouldn’t go on strike that day.

Last year, millions of immigrant workers took to the streets of the U.S. and put the focus back on the working class origins of May Day. Hundreds of ad hoc committees were organized in factories, schools, and workplaces to plan for what was almost certainly the largest national strike/boycott in the history of the U.S.

May Day Immigrant March

This represents a real threat to the power of the capitalists, who rely on a vast pool of immigrant labor with no rights in order to divide the working class, drive down wages, and increase profits. As punishment, the government has unleashed a wave of state terror against immigrant communities with stepped up raids and deportations. The movement is also being placed under relentless pressure to “wait and see” what the Democrats can come up with. However, despite their demagogic talk of “comprehensive immigration reform”, their proposals have nothing to offer immigrant workers and their families. The phenomenon of mass immigration is directly related to the foreign and economic policies of U.S. imperialism. In the overall context of the global division of labor, the U.S. is being transformed from an economy based on manufacturing to a services-based economy, which requires a brutal “re-tooling” of the American working class.

In order to compete in this new world environment, there is only one solution for the capitalist class: to take back the relatively high wages and decent conditions won through bitter struggle by U.S. workers in the past. Over the last 25 years, U.S. workers have been faced with unprecedented wage and benefit cuts, mass layoffs, off-shoring, worsening conditions, and the decimation of the unions.

Capitalists do not invest in order to create jobs or to improve the quality of life of “their” country’s workers—they invest to make profits.  They will therefore invest wherever they can in order to maximize their returns. The capitalists are forcing U.S. workers to compete on the world labor market with workers who toil for lower wages under worse conditions.  Many of these are undocumented immigrants forced to emigrate from their countries to the U.S. due to the poverty, misery and war caused by U.S. policies.

The current attacks on immigrant workers are part of the attacks being faced by all working people. However, in society as in nature, everything has its limits. American society does not exist in a vacuum.  As in every country dominated by capitalist property relations, the U.S. is a society with tremendous class divisions and contradictions. Also in society as in nature, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The sharp, sudden changes being forced on U.S. workers are preparing an inevitable reaction against these attacks.  The capitalist class’ relentless pursuit of profit is a finished recipe for tremendous explosions of the class struggle in the coming period. Already, there are symptoms of what is to come.

Although it has been just a few  months since the 2006 mid-term elections, the 2008 Presidential election campaign has already taken off. Candidates from both corporate parties are aggressively vying for public support and recognition. More importantly, they are bending over backwards to gain the support of the corporate elite that really run this country, as they scramble to raise the millions of dollars that are required to run a campaign in what passes for “democracy” in the U.S.

After nearly 7 years of Bush Jr., it’s understandable that many people simply want someone new in office.  But are the Democrats a real alternative for working people?  Millions of workers instinctively understand that despite this or that superficial difference, both corporate parties defend the same basic interests. Above all, they defend the profit-based system of capitalism.

On all fundamental issues, the blurry line between these parties has become virtually indistinguishable. Elections in the U.S. are in many ways merely a competition over which gang of exploiters will get to loot the treasury. And yet, there are deep and growing divisions within the ruling class. Faced with looming economic crisis and increasing instability on a world scale, they are divided over how to proceed.  Should they lean on the “bad cop” Republicans or the “good cop” Democrats?  For working people, the difference is negligible.  Either way, the only way out of the crisis is to squeeze ever more out of U.S. workers and the people of the world.

With the Democrats’ victory in the mid-term elections, many in the movement have succumbed to the pressure to “let the politicians solve our problems.”  But their track record in the few months they’ve been the majority in Congress,  for example on Iraq and immigration, has already exposed what interests they really defend. Millions who had sincere illusions in the Democrats feel betrayed.

Nevertheless, the pressure to support a “lesser-evil” candidate is already mounting and will only intensify. While it’s impossible to say precisely what will happen in the 2008 elections—a year and a half is an eternity in politics—the result can be predicted well in advance: A big business candidate will win, and working people will lose. It’s time to reverse this pattern of deceit and betrayal. As a party by and for a wealthy minority, the Democrats will never represent the interests of the working class majority. What we need is a party genuinely of, by, and for working people. Such a party could gain tremendous support under current conditions.

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