Commemorating May Day 2021

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May 1, 2021
By Chip Gibbons

Today is May Day, commemorated throughout the world as International Workers’ Day. Although May Day is celebrated by the vast majority of countries, it is not an official holiday in the United States. Yet, May Day’s origins in fact lay in the United States. Police and state repression against striking workers in Chicago fighting for an eight-hour work day led to international calls to mark the first of May as International Workers’ Day. 

Unfortunately, violence against striking workers and the labor movement was not a one-off incident. The rights to freedom of association and assembly, guaranteed by the First Amendment, were curtailed, oftentimes quite violently, in order to suppress the workers’ movement. 

It was these abuses that served as a major impetus for the development of the civil liberties movement. Disturbed by police violence against striking workers, civil liberties organizations fought and achieved the first recognized protections of the right to assembly. Civil liberties organizations championed the Wagner Act, which enshrined collective bargaining, and called on Congress to form a “civil liberties committee” to investigate attacks on the labor movement. The Senate finally responded by forming a Civil Liberties Committee chaired by Senator Robert LaFollette Jr., which investigated and exposed attacks on workers’ rights to organize.

And perhaps the greatest collective action against police violence in the history of the United States was led by the labor movement. On July 5, 1934, known as “Bloody Thursday,” police murdered two striking longshoremen.  Revulsion to the police violence caused what had started as a strike on the waterfront to transform into a general strike encompassing the whole of San Francisco. 

Defending Rights & Dissent has long recognized the close relationship between the civil liberties movement and the labor movement. We have previously written:

We know that the struggle for workers’ rights has always been closely connected with the struggle for the right to freedom of speech. The very right to form a union is protected under the right to freedom of association. Strikes and picket lines are amongst the most quintessential examples of expressive action our Bill of Rights is meant to protect. Yet, for far too long federal, state, and local governments would go to great lengths to suppress these rights. Judges declared unions illegal and jailed workers. Police, national guardsmen, and private mercenary forces, like the infamous Pinkerton Detectives, attacked picket lines with great violence. Assemblies and presses were banned; ideas were criminalized. Yet, the workers’ movement refused to give up, refused to concede that the Bill of Rights were merely a promise the government had no intention of delivering on.

In 1939, the Supreme Court recognized for the first time (in Hague v Committee for Industrial Organization) a right to political assemblies on public streets and parks when striking down a law meant to ban labor meetings. This is emblematic of how everyone who enjoys free expression in the United States owes a tremendous debt to the labor movement. We must also remember that while these rights were eventually ratified by the courts, during a shameful period in our past, when it came to the rights of working people, politicians and courts were more than willing to side with powerful corporate interests over our Bill of Rights. As a result, these rights had to be won on the picket line, in the mine encampment, on the factory floor. Thanks to this struggle all Americans, whether they participate in the labor movement or not, enjoy a range of rights. This is why one cannot support freedom of speech without standing in solidarity with the labor movement.

May Day may not be an official holiday in the United States, but it remains a day of public protests. Today, groups across the country will be exercising their First Amendment rights, including 80 protests in support of the Pro Act. 

May Day comes at a time when the right to protest is under renewed attack, as 220 bills attacking the right to protest are pending in state legislatures across the country. These bills are by their very nature anti-labor. 

On this International Workers’ Day, as we have done in years past, Defending Rights & Dissent salutes the contributions to civil liberties made by the labor movement. Because of their struggle, all Americans are more free. We also will continue to defend the right to protest and support the right of all people taking to the streets today to express themselves.