Today is May Day, celebrated around the world as International Workers’ Day. These days free speech advocates and civil libertarians often fail to recognize workers’ rights as a core embodiment of the principles they seek to uphold. The struggle for workers rights touches on core rights of freedom of speech, association, and assembly. Labor movements demonstrate the importance of the right to engage in collective action for a shared goal and to agitate for a more just world.
It wasn’t always the case that the rights of workers were viewed as being divorced from fundamental civil liberties. Workers movements were met with heavy repression and it is their struggle that helped pave the way for the recognition of freedom of expression in the United States. Early civil liberties advocates themselves often began as “self-proclaimed partisans in the class war.” As Defending Rights & Dissent has explained in the past,
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.
While we are celebrating the tremendous gains for the right to political expression made by the labor movement, we also note that this May Day comes amidst a wave of teacher militancy. In state, after state, teachers have walked out, gone on strike, and in a number of cases won key demands–demonstrating why it is we defend the right to dissent.
Unsurprisingly, the teachers’ strikes have been met with attempts to curtail them. The first of these strikes occured in West Virginia, where anti-strike laws deny teachers the fundamental rights to free expression, association, and collective agitation. The Attorney General of West Virginia declared the strikes illegal, though the teachers were undeterred.
In Arizona, the right wing Goldwater Institute, declaring that teachers have no right to strike, has threatened to sue the public school system for closing schools and thus “facilitating illegal activity.” In Colorado, a bill has been proposed that would allow teachers to be jailed for striking.
Whenever social movements pose a threat to the status quo, there are attempts to repress them. That is why this May Day we unequivocally stand in solidarity with striking teachers everywhere and oppose any attempts to silence them.
The Origins of May Day
While May Day is less celebrated in the US than other parts of the world where it is an official holiday, May Day’s origins lie in the Haymarket Massacre. On May 1, 1866 workers across the United States went on strike demanding an eight-hour work day. On May 3, striking workers in Chicago, Illinois were shot down by police, resulting in the death of two workers. As a response, a demonstration in support of the strikers and against police violence was called for on May 4. This demonstration was undeniably peaceful until police decided to break up the crowd, at which point an unknown individual threw a bomb. At the end of the event, seven police and four workers were dead.
The police responded with swift repression. Unable to find a real suspect for the bombing, eight anarchist organizers, some of whom were not even present at the rally, were put on trial. Their political views and writings were submitted to the jury as evidence of their guilt. At the end of the trial, all were found guilty and seven defendants were sentenced to death. Four of the defendants were executed by the state, two had their sentences commuted. All three surviving defendants would receive full pardons given the outrageous misconduct that marred the trial and investigation.
The Socialist International chose May 1 as International Workers’ Day to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs. To this day, unions and civil society groups continue to celebrate May Day and use to it demand greater workers’ rights. In recent years in the United States, immigrants’ rights groups have chosen May Day to hold demonstrations.
The Long Repression of Working Class Movements
The Haymarket Massacre didn’t just spawn International Workers’ Day. The Chicago Police would go onto form one of the first “red squads” in the nation, an intelligence unit created to spy on, infiltrate, and disrupt political and social groups, and all levels of government would engage in repression of those with socialist, anarchist, communist, or other anti-capitalist political beliefs. This repression was at times closely intertwined with the violence carried out against striking workers. Those who support the right to political expression, should recall this May Day that one cannot support freedom of speech without standing in solidarity with the labor movement.