“A privately owned world can never be a free world and a society based upon warring classes cannot stand.” – Eugene V. Debs, 1915.
For many, Labor Day is a welcome reprieve from the drudgery of work in the form of a three-day weekend. It marks the season’s impending turn as summer gives way to fall, an opportunity for one final cookout before the sun starts setting a little sooner. For someone like me, being raised in New York, the holiday was the last day before the school year began. Given the social and material conditions many Americans find themselves in, exasperated by austerity, COVID-19, and the movement for Black lives, Labor Day deserves a different form of reflection.
Education in American labor movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries are hard to come by in public schooling. Even the page that was supposed to contain a curriculum for American labor history for teachers by the National Education Association comically leads to a 404 page. My exposure to left-leaning and radical history from the Haymarket affair and Alexander Berkman came from reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in high school. I was essentially Timothée Chalamet in Lady Bird.
The same movements that gave us a federal holiday where we get jacked up about the three-day weekend are missing from our public education curriculum. Despite brushing away the history of socialists, communists, and anarchists, Labor Day’s origins revolving around class organization feel more relevant than ever.
Ironically, the federal holiday’s origins that gave us blowout deals from major corporations originated from one of the most massive labor strikes in American history. The Panic of 1893 deeply affected every sector of the American economy. Illinois industrialist George Pullman Illinois industrialist sought to cut costs at his namesake company by laying off hundreds of workers and cutting the wages of those still employed. Angry Pullman Company workers walked off the job in May 1894. The American Railway Union, led by a young Eugene Debs, later called for a boycott of trains pulling Pullman cars in solidarity with the striking workers. With the ARU joining, the Pullman strike thrust into the national spotlight.
Rail traffic and commerce halted in 27 states from Chicago to the west coast and a group of railroad company representatives sought help from the federal government. After Debs delivered a speech on June 29, nearby buildings caught fire while a U.S. mail train was simultaneously derailed. Attorney General Richard Olney used this event to call for a federal injunction against the strike and the courts granted his request on July 2. President Grover Cleveland dispatched federal troops to Illinois despite protests from pro-labor Gov. John Peter Altgeld who felt the injunction was unconstitutional.
If you have been following what has happened in Portland this year, what comes next in this story should feel familiar. Violent clashes would occur due to the escalation caused by the presence of federal troops created. Damaged rail cars and clashes between a conglomerate of 10,000 federal and state troops and striking workers occurred. During the 1894 protests, National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd on July 7, killing as many as 30 people and leaving countless wounded.
This escalation eventually led to the decline of the Pullman strike. Debs saw prison time, the ARU dissolved, and Pullman employees became barred from ever unionizing again. To appease the American working class ahead of the upcoming presidential election after years of strikes and boycotts across the country, President Cleveland offered a national holiday to recognize these labor movements as a form of conciliation after employing harsh methods to quell uprisings. Labor Day was born, and Cleveland did not secure re-election from the Democratic Party.
When reflecting on the origins of Labor Day, a holiday rooted in the defeat of a massive labor movement, I feel an immense weight that was not present in previous years. I always had this history in my head as someone who has identified themselves as a socialist politically. This year feels different; the intertwining of socialism’s promise and the Black Lives Matter movement feel more apparent than ever. Even on a holiday created by an anti-labor President, it feels right to reflect on socialism’s history and the connection to Black liberation.
I have no desire to write a rose-tinted analysis of Debs’s Socialist Party of America. Black members of the party, such as Hubert Harrison, were forced to the margins. One of the party’s founders, Victor Berger, envisioned a socialist America as being segregated. Debs was the contrarian of the party, not afraid to confront the topic of race. His character was befitting as someone who expressed a deep commitment to the liberation of all oppressed people from the ills brought forth by capitalism.
In response to one party member warning Debs he “will jeopardize the best interests of the Socialist Party if you insist on the political equality of the Negro,” his reply was eviscerating, stating that it would “be false to its historic mission, violate the fundamental principles of Socialism, deny its philosophy, and repudiate its own teachings,” if the party did not address Black oppression.
And yet historians have ascribed the pre-Depression left as class reductionists, accusing the Socialist Party and Debs himself of choosing to neglect the plight of Black people in apartheid America during the era of Jim Crow. “We [the Socialist Party] have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races” became the line that would damn Debs’ reputation on anti-racism for decades.
W.E.B. Du Bois reinforced a sense of urgency for leftist movements to challenge racism and segregation instead of sweeping it aside in favor of only class struggle. He called “the Negro problem” the “great test of the American socialist.” There was “no recent convention of Socialists has dared to face fairly the Negro problem and make a straightforward declaration that they regard Negroes as men in the same sense that other persons are.” For Du Bois, he felt that socialism could not fulfill its vision without addressing race. In a sense, the Socialist Party of pre-Depression America failed his test.
Du Bois remained hopeful for the future of Black liberation laid in socialism as the civil rights movement picked up momentum in the 1950s. For him, fighting capitalism’s miasma of racism, poverty, and inequality needed to occur. Without economic and class liberation, the indignities faced by Black communities would continue. Kwame Ture echoes this sentiment, calling for the urgency of capitalism’s destruction as one of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s critical missions:
“We do not want to set up, for example, a black capitalist system. We want to economically destroy capitalism because capitalism goes hand in hand with racism and exploitation. Wherever capitalism has gone, those two characteristics are sure to follow … so we must destroy the capitalist system which enslaves us on the inside and the people of the third world on the outside.”
Which brings us to the current moment we’re in now. Four months have passed since the murder of George Floyd. Uprisings against police violence continue across America. An awakening towards the ills of capitalism has occurred. Economic conditions caused by the increasing income gap under measures of austerity over the past 30 years have become exasperated by the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’ve reached a historic precipice this year, not only in terms of these social and economic conditions but also in the upcoming presidential election. Joe Biden, a centrist candidate rooted in neoliberal politics, is the tool the Democratic party chose to fight Donald Trump’s neofascism, and that tool could fail. The possibility of failure should spark a sense of urgency in all of us regarding organizing the working class. After all, the use of labor power to meet our demands is something both major parties do not want.
Biden has voiced his distaste for “class warfare” and has courted support from Wall Street. At the same time, Trump needs working class voters to remain distracted while he and his friends pillage and grift their way to economic and political power. He’ll continue to play up populist rhetoric that won him an election in 2016. This message resonates with voters in states like Wisconsin, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. They have been affected by economic policies pushed by both parties that have made even the modicum of a decent lifestyle unaffordable. Despite his empty promises, Trump is the only one amongst the two candidates to say that out loud.
But the effectiveness of withholding labor, especially when it comes to seizing power from political elites to force social change, can’t be denied. We can see this in the NBA strike that occurred after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. President Barack Obama’s interference with the strike further clarifies just how much power the working class can grab through organization and the withholding of labor power, just like the Pullman workers organizing under poor economic conditions.
We can’t deny the display of power that labor can seize through organization, even if these strikes did not meet their intended goals. If anything, it reinforces the need for socialism now more than ever.
It’s the antidote to the rise of the far-right in America, who will use the inequality caused by capitalism to further their own goals rooted in white supremacy and authoritarianism. Socialism requires the abolition of capitalism, an economic system that views Tyler Perry’s journey to becoming a billionaire as social progress, even though his 300-acre studio is nothing but empty houses in a city with a homeless population of over 3,000 people. When we remember police murdered Breonna Taylor during a no-knock warrant linked to gentrification, we see the harm related to capitalism.
In the end, this is a holiday where we should remember the power we can grab from the ruling class, even if the holiday formed in the wake of working class defeat. When enjoying a socially distanced cookout, we ought to take the time to reflect on this history and the urgency of socialism in our movements. Capitalism is the conduit that weaves white supremacy and oppression into the fabric of society. Under this system, Black people, poor people, and people of color will always face indignities in the form of poverty, racism, and oppression. Like Debs said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
That thinking based on class unity might be what we need.