The place is a construction site. The time is somewhere in the labor movements” darker days, when the mob wielded significant influence in some major unions. A contractor has hired skilled trade unionists to do jobs no one else can do. However, in order to keep costs down, he has foolishly decided to hire unskilled workers who are not affiliated with the union to do most of the less demanding jobs that would otherwise have been performed by highly-paid, highly-skilled union members.
It”s Friday morning, and work has been progressing for about an hour. All of the sudden, three huge, well-dressed guys carrying blunt objects pull up to the site in a Cadillac. Everyone falls silent as the three approach the worker unlucky enough to be closest to them.
“Aye, are you in the union?” The worker shakes his head apologetically and the thugs deliver unto him a proverbial “beat down.” That finished, the three men turn their attention to someone else. “Are you in the union?” The worker nods, breathing a sigh of relief. “Alright, go over there.” The men approach a third worker. “You in the union?” He nods. The men turn towards the union member they”ve just spared. “Is this guy in the union?” He shakes his head, and the three men proceed to beat the liar within an inch of his life.
After this process has been repeated a few times, the three men find the contractor. “It looks like none of the non-union guys can work any more.” The contractor utterly terrified nods his head. “So you”re only gonna hire our guys now, right?”
“And our guys can get the day off they can come back to work on Monday. Right?”
“Good.” Then a truck full of cold beer pulls up and the union members start enjoying an unexpected three-day weekend.
This story might be apocryphal, but it does illustrate the basic way some unions operated back when the mob called a lot of shots in the labor movement. In this particular story the gangsters almost come across as “benevolent muscle” looking out for a few hard working guys they “resolve” a conflict between the union and an employer, secure “their guys” a well deserved three day weekend and a round of beer. Of course, all of this “benevolence” is really just an insidious smoke screen meant to prevent rank and file union members from noticing that they”re actually getting stabbed in the back (with their pensions being raided and so on).
This technique is tried and true. In the Middle Ages, it was common for landowners to throw parties for their serfs get them drunk once in awhile, try to look conciliatory and generous, and they”ll tolerate quite a bit of cruelty. In keeping with this noble tradition, the United States has “Labor Day,” where America supposedly pauses on the first Monday of September to honor all of the men and women who keep our nation running.
Of course, in this country, Labor Day has almost nothing to do with honoring working people and everything to do with enjoying a three-day weekend. That”s not the case in the rest of the world where people really do honor working people by celebrating “May Day” on May 1.
May Day probably began as a spring festival in pre-Christian Europe, but the labor movement latched onto it in the 1800s and it has since become a militant workers holiday celebrating class consciousness and the struggle for economic justice. Needless to say, it stands as a virtual photographic negative to the “let”s say good bye to summer with barbecue, beer and boating” charade Americans celebrated last Monday.
This year, May Day was celebrated:
in Vienna, Austria by 100,000 marchers who demanded greater job security.
in Seoul, Korea by 20,000 demonstrators protesting their government”s economic policies. The demonstrators smashed through a police barricade to take their message to the main government district in the Korean capital.
in Istanbul, Turkey by 20,000 protesters calling for the government to negotiate with left wing political prisoners staging a hunger strike that had already left 20 dead.
in Havana, Cuba by hundreds of thousands of people who followed President Fidel Castro in a march past the United States” mission there to protest (among other things) the U.S.”s embargo on Cuba.
and that”s just a smattering of genuinely pro-worker events that happened this past May 1 all over the world.
Ironically, the U.S. does have an official holiday on May Day In 1961, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring May 1 “Law Day.” The purpose of Law Day, according to the American Bar Association, is to celebrate (this is an actual quote) “the American heritage of liberty, justice and equality under the law.”
Let”s not get ahead of ourselves ABA, Americans will have to start celebrating the real Labor Day in earnest before “Law Day” means anything.
Nick Woomer can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.