The Distress Call
Mayday! is an internationally recognized word to signal distress, an English corruption of the French: “m’aidez!” meaning “help me!”
Today, May 1st, is May Day. Also known as Labour Day or International Worker’s Day in over 60 countries around the world. Over 100 years ago, the day was established as a bank holiday. Today, its history and importance risk being lost amidst labor’s relief for having an extra day “off”.
As we face mounting evidence of an escalating economic crisis affecting people and planet, where most of the challenges are either directly economic in nature or symptoms of a flawed economic core, can the demands of the labor movement be understood as a distress call for community support: “May Day!” really means: “Help me help us!”
Without getting lost in the past, how can our economic history and current emergencies create opportunities for the re-emergence of individual wellbeing, community prosperity, social peace, and planetary regeneration?
And, as Will Ruddick, founder of Grassroots Economics asks, “How can we look at Labor Day from outside a capitalistic market-dominating labor-as-commodity framework?”
Remembered in history as “The Haymarket Affair,” on May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In the city of Chicago alone, 40,000 workers went on strike. While it mainly consisted of parades, bands and tens of thousands of unified demonstrators in the streets, violence ensued. A mysterious altercation resulted in police shooting into a crowd and someone throwing a homemade bomb. Reports of what happened seem fuzzy, but it ultimately seven police officers were reported killed, along with 4–8 civilians, and dozens more wounded.
Seven labor leaders were tried for murder as anarchists. Four were executed and one committed suicide in jail. Just before his execution, one of the men, August Spies said, “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
These words rang out throughout the labor movements of Latin America and Europe. Acknowledge the efforts and losses of the Haymarket Affair, the International Socialist Conference in 1889 named May Day a labor holiday. However, to disassociate with the significance of the day, the United States celebrates the economic contributions of workers on the first Monday of September.
After the violence, the media reports, and the execution of labor leaders, the Haymarket Affair resulted in an overall regression of the labor movement’s progress.
The labor movement was asking for much more than an 8-hour workday and a day off. The May 1st strike was planned by a broad labor movement calling for people to be unified across all trades, nationalities, genders, and ethnicities. Waving this new banner for workers’ rights was the Knights of Labor who were ultimately blamed and defamed for the Haymarket Affair.
Started by Uriah Stephens, the Knights were…
“a new departure in labor organization. The founder described what he considered a tendency toward large combinations of capital, and argued that the trades-union form of organization was like a bundle of sticks when unbound,- weak and powerless to resist combination.~ from a 1887 publication in the Quarterly Journal of Economics article,“A Historical Sketch of the Knights of Labor.”
The Knights represented an “attempt to organize labor on a broad basis - as broad as society itself, in which all trades should be recognized.” Rather than organizing as a divisive political movement, or as a trade specific, where trades were often in competition with other workers and therefore rife with racism and sexism, the Knights had a unifying vision for a society that would work for all.
Their platform included determining individual and national progress by morals rather than wealth, and supporting the ability of workers to enjoy the products of their labor and the benefits of civilization. While somewhat vague, these goals pointed toward a humanistic approach to social progress. More specific demands included no child labor, equal pay for equal work among the sexes, and ‘a general refusal to work more than 8 hours.’
Further points present ideas on land and money that, considering the conversations of the day, were likely better understood in the late 19th century than now. Some of these propositions are as follows:
~ “That the public land, the heritage of the people, be reserved for actual settlers, not another acre for railroads or speculators; and that all lands now held for speculative purposes be taxed to their full value.” The general aim here is to take land off of the speculative marketplace. In context, the popular American economist of the time, Henry George, had proposed a single land tax that disincentivized the private purchase of land for speculative purposes of personal profit. Without fighting a political battle, the real estate market of land profiteering can be avoided with Land Trusts that create long-term affordable housing for all as a goal, not use land as another asset class for the wealthy.
~ “The establishment of a national monetary system, in which a circulating medium in necessary quantity shall issue direct to the people, without the intervention of banks; that all the national issue shall be full legal tender in payment of all debts, public and private; and that the government shall not guarantee or recognize private banks or create any banking corporations.” The time period was fresh on the heels of the Civil War, when Lincoln had issued non-interest bearing Greenbacks and promised to redeem them at full value from the soldiers. This had created a non-interest bearing currency, issued directly to the people with a stable value. What this did to create popular financial security in the face of the thousands of insecure private bank issued currencies is hard to fathom. To remember that primary tenants of the labor movement included non-interest bearing money would mean an economically educated population with a far greater understanding of what causes poverty, national debt, and war.
~ “That interest-bearing bonds, bills of credit, or notes shall never be issued by the government; but that, when need arises, the emergency shall be met by issue of legal-tender, non-interest-bearing money.” Interest-bearing dollars create spiraling debt and economic insecurity when it isn’t necessary for the government to borrow from the banks or discount the future. Public banks allow the government to borrow from herself and avoid the extractive fees and interest of private banks that discount the future and leave taxpayers with the overinflated bill.
~ “That, in connection with the post-office, the government shall organize financial exchanges, safe deposits, and facilities for deposit of the savings of the people in small sums.” Postal banking as accessible banking for all, without bank fees.
~ “To establish a co-operative institution, such as will tend to supersede the wage system, by the introduction of a co-operative system.” The history of the United States was founded on cooperative associations who collaborating on food security, energy independence, transportation, housing, healthcare, and everything else a community would need. This has also been true around the world and throughout human history as mutually supportive economies naturally emerge with a kind of “We help ourselves by helping each other,” philosophy.
According to Cultural history Riane Eisler, “One of the best-kept historical secrets is that practically all the material and social technologies fundamental to civlization were developed before the imposition of a dominator society.” These include the domestication of plants and animals, food production and storage, building construction, and clothing production, the institutions of law, government and religion and the arts of dance, pottery, basket making, textile weaving, leather crafting, metalurgy, ritual drama, architecture, town planning, boat building, highway construction, and oral literature.
In the todays market economy, cooperative businesses can continue this heritage. To establish a coop where members share in the revenue they produce does not require a legislative demand, and is shown to be a highly transformative tool of community prosperity and personal empowerment.
Cooperative businesses that prioritize wellbeing outcomes for all, operate with shared equity on mutually owned land, trade vouchers for goods and services, and grow trusting relationships of mutual support not only reflect our economic heritage but express the most empowered vision of the labor movement. It was much more than the demand for an 8-hour workday! These are the same solutions that today are at the radical edge of the economic narrative in communities everywhere, from Africa to America.
And if you feel the distress call of the economic crisis, remember MayDay isn’t just a legislative demand for someone to come save us. It is a call for mutual care and support.
Mayday: M’aidez a vous aider. Help me to help you.
Happy May Day.