On Tuesday, countries around with the world will celebrate May Day, a festive holiday that marks the advent of spring. Today is also International Workers’ Day, a celebration that remembers historical labor movements. Across nations, millions will orchestrate demonstrations, coordinate parades, and proudly — often solemnly — recognize the contributions of their country’s workers, both past and present. In particular, they will recognize those persecuted figures in the struggle for fair wages and working conditions against oppressive regimes.
Yet in the United States, today will be business as usual.
Few know that in the U.S., today marks two holidays. It is Loyalty Day, a “day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.” In an only slightly less patriotic vein, it is also Law Day. Though largely recognized only by the legal profession, it is a day of “respect for law that is so vital to the democratic way of life.” American exceptionalism aside, with a population so ancestrally eclectic and diverse, why do we celebrate the efforts and contributions of our workers on Labor Day in September? Why not today along with the rest of the world?
In 1958, 13 years into the political and military tensions of the Cold War, Congress codified Loyalty Day and President Eisenhower proclaimed Law Day. In the early 20th century, Marxist ideologies had spread across Europe, India, and Asia, culminating in various implementations of Communism. During the Cold War, Communism posed what seemed an imminent threat to the newly powerful, post-World War II United States. Adherence to Marx’s and Engels’ principles varied, but Communism, as understood by the United States’ social and political institutions, imperiled democratic ideals and threatened to dismantle the country’s successful capitalistic models.
The Eisenhower administration regarded the spirit of International Workers’ Day as leftist and Communist. With Law Day and Loyalty Day, the administration sought to inoculate American citizens against the infection of Communism, its ideas and its institutions.
Despite May 1’s uniquely American history, the spirit of International Workers’ Day is of particular importance to the present state of U.S. labor relations. In the last decade, workers’ rights, including notions of human rights, collective collaboration, and access to supportive resources,have become contentious. Nowhere is this more evident than the political football of immigration and labor.
Though the Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986) took steps to reform immigration law, our industries daily capitalize upon the labor of illegal immigrants, be they day workers, migrant laborers, or those more fixed. They earn annual incomes below the poverty line, and live correspondingly. These unseen, often unacknowledged, physical laborers are vital to the U.S. economy, yet they often lack social and community resources to advocate for fair wages and working conditions. Hypotheticals aside, they are without many options or alternatives.
Since Congress passed the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437) in 2005, migrant worker associations, labor unions, religious groups, and social justice organizations have opposed the law’s more puritanic aspects. These groups have rallied against provisions of the law that impose felonious penalties for illegal immigrants’ misdemeanor infractions, prevent charitable aid and religious ministry to illegal immigrants, and implicitly discount the vital importance of illegal immigrants’ labor to our economy.
Since 2010, disputes have erupted over Arizona’s controversial passage of its Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (S.B. 1070). Detractors noted the implicitly racist undertones of the law and the detrimental effect it had on businesses that employed legal and illegal immigrants and racial minorities. Though tempered in 2010 by the Arizona District Court, S.B. 1070 is under present deliberation by U.S. Supreme Court after the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit rooted in the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The DoJ argued that the immigration framework of the federal government preempted Arizona’s immigration legislation, and thus invalidated S.B. 1070’s draconian immigration measures.
Polls indicate that about half of Americans view illegal immigration as a national problem. However, the Obama administration has taken aggressive measures to stymie illegal immigration. Further, a recent study found that immigration from Mexico — where the majority of legal and illegal workers hail — has dropped to near zero. Despite these realities, states like Georgia, Utah, Indiana, and Alabama have pushed ahead in implementing nuanced laws that extend federal immigration policies. Some see these laws as successes, others as failures. What is true is that as legal and illegal immigrants have fled in responsive panic, these laws have had catastrophic effects on state GDPs, civic services, and American communities.
Since H.R. 4437 became law, on May 1 workers’ organizations across the United States have annually gathered to advocate for fairness, political address, and workers’ rights. Today, modeled on previous immigration reform protests, Occupy Wall Street groups will join with immigrant rights groups and labor unions to illuminate the realities of labor in America. Though some workers’ rights movements have been successful in the past, the vast majority of low-wage earners — particularly those who are illegal immigrants — still lack both rights and resources.
Given our history, we may never see absolute equality in our social and political institutions, but we have taken great leaps in the direction of progress. As a society, we have an explicit cognizance of what is right and what is fair — as children, we learned that these things were keystones in the founding of our democracy. If we have demonstrated the ability to realize fairness in our past, we can do so in our present and for our future.
We no longer live in the era of Eisenhower. Progress realizes that International Workers’ Day is no longer incompatible with the tenets of Loyalty Day and Law Day — in fact, their essences are one and the same. It’s time to celebrate.