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The Soviet empire is so passe. Diplomats gloat over the fall of the evil empire while economists gleefully herald the triumph of The Market. The same liberal intellectuals who had once defended the notion of a socialist society now denounce it as merely another imperialist ideology propagated by dead white guys. It seems like Sovietism has been permanently relegated to being a invaluable subject of academic research and a provider of military medals, fur hats and other stylishly hip cold war memorabilia. Gone are the missiles, air-raid drills, and fallout shelters. And Tom Clancy's early books can be safely relocated to the "historical novel" shelves of libraries nationwide. So why are we still so scared?
This Thursday will mark the 111th celebration of May Day in the United States. Not the festival of May poles and dancing but the holiday of red flags, clenched fists, and the spilled blood of the working class. Some call it International Workers' Holiday, and one labor giant once described May 1 as "labor day for anyone who thinks." It is a day when we cease working to remember labor's martyrs and to be thankful that we work only eight hour shifts instead of 16. We celebrate the civic and economic importance of unions and the happy fact that The Jungle of Upton Sinclair is, hopefully, a relic of the past. We'll wave red banners and proudly march side by side with workers of many colors.
Or maybe we won't. The sad fact is that in an attempt to crush the remnants of class consciousness the rites of May 1st have been replaced with a day of beer and barbecues in early September.
The origins of an American May Day lie in Chicago in the gilded year of 1886, when nearly 100,000 of the city's poor gather to demand an eight hour day. At sometime during the May 1st rally a bomb exploded, and four of the movement's supporters were charged, convicted and hanged for the crime only to be fully pardoned by a justice-minded governor who believed the original trial to be a farce. With the work of the executioner complete, American labor had its first martyrs and a day on which to remember them. May Day became an international celebration of working class rights, solidarity and necessary antagonism toward the ruling elite who stood in their way.
In the days when our national security was allegedly under constant threat from the world behind the Iron Curtain, it is understandable though not at all excusable that we would pounce on any holiday we deemed "un-American." But now the threat has been reduced to nil and Americans can rest assured of their global supremacy for many years to come. The threats that remain are increasingly internal and perpetuated not by lunatic leftist radicals but by their right-wing counter-parts. Now that the national security/communist menace legitimization of repression is gone, it is time to liberate May Day and return it to the people.
Every possible social permutation has its own piece of the calendar. We celebrate Secretary's Day, Black History Month, the Decade of the Brain, and the American Century. That organized and yet-to-be-organized labor deserves the same seems to be plain. And so we burn burgers in the summer heat of Labor Day.
That organized labor and yet-to-be-organized labor should have a day that is meaningful and historically significant is not quite as obvious. But when that day becomes a chance for workers to lawfully build solidarity and challenge their bosses, we get scared. It is time that May 1st once again becomes a vital day in our nation's calendar. Independence Day arouses flag-wavers, Memorial Day brings out veterans and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day gathers those dedicated to equal rights for all. The labor movement is comprised of all three groups, and it is high time they have a proud day all their own.
May Day is a day to unite, not divide, and with the exception of our legal holidays it would most likely draw out a larger portion of the American populous than any other day on the calendar. Black, white, male, female. All divisions would become mute if only for 24 hours as workers joined hands against the one fissure with which all must cope, the gap that separates worker from capitalist. Sovietism is dead; this Thursday, celebrate this May Day without fear. Your barbecues and beer will still be there in September.
Gabriel B. Eber's column appears on alternate Saturdays.
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