Today is May Day or International Workers’ Day in most other countries except for the United States, where “Labor Day” is celebrated on the first Monday of September. This is ironic because International Workers’ Day actually began in the United States on May 1, 1886 when 300,000 workers from 13,000 businesses across the United States walked out on their jobs to demand an eight hour work day without a cut in pay. This led to violence and retribution from industrialists and the ruling class, and Labor Day was eventually established in September as a day “to celebrate labor.” But in reality, it is a day to separate labor because nothing scares governments more than the thought that one holiday could be the unifying impetus that brings together International Workers of the World to Unite. And the Red Scare’s legacy, in its elimination of this story from our history books, continues to weigh heavily on the backs of soldiers, workers, and the poor.
At present, things have changed greatly since 1886. People still work over eight hours each day, but they are asked to sign contracts that sell their personal lives in exchange for a salary instead. The federal government is still dominated by lobbying groups connected to large industrial concerns including the oil industry, defense contracting, and especially international finance. The recent financial crisis in 2007 and the ensuing Arab Spring, M15, and Occupy Movements across the world are the closest that international workers have ever come to uniting. But because of the lack of leadership and real understanding by the common man about what exactly needed to be changed and how, these movements lost their voice by not coming together to make a common demand.
This brings into question a statement by Diego Rivera on this mural (pictured) that was chipped out of Rockefeller Center: “The liberation of the workers may only be the work of the laborers themselves.” But are the workers educated enough to liberate themselves? Do future workers graduate from high school with an education that equips them to understand the complexities of our interdependent world? Are they enabled to make good decisions when electing our future leaders, let alone make their own financial decisions? For me, and in light of the soundbites that I accidentally hear from the current Presidential debates, the answer is no. They are not. And as a believer in the potential for art and culture to produce real social change, I would go so far as to state that Diego Rivera actually did us a disservice by not producing the fresco that he was originally contracted to paint in Rockefeller Center. He missed an opportunity to unite international workers of the world with the people who want to help them most, the industrialists, financiers, and business class.
Diego Rivera’s mural was chipped out of the wall at Rockefeller Center, due to its strongly communist overtones because he succumbed to peer pressure by his contemporaries who called him a sellout for painting for the Rockefellers. The fresco he painted, with a portrait of Lenin and an unflattering depiction of Rockefeller Sr., is much different from the painting that he originally proposed. And Rivera expert Linda Downs explains the unifying message of the original sketches: “He had this vision of the importance of technology in the future and the hope that there would be a coming together of workers and industrialists and businessmen to further mankind in general … It was a very hopeful mural.” The proposed fresco, as depicted in his sketches, remains a missing piece of history that could have depicted hope, and possibly instigated collaboration amongst these disparate classes that are hardly ever brought together by any networking group or chamber of commerce.
But the frequent inability of revolutionaries and politicians to collaborate with their contemporaries continues to weigh heavily on the working man’s back. Their lofty goals and ideals are incapable of translating into real change that will further the best interests of everyone, not just either the workers or the ruling class. When international workers of the world do unite, whether behind a protest like the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement in 2011, or behind a bigoted billionaire running for the U.S. Presidency; the results tend to be detrimental to societies at large. Just look at Lybia, Egypt or Germany after World War II. A lack of access to quality education continues to oppress so many in the United States who are not given an equal opportunity to succeed. But beyond quality education, the real problem is that our true history is not taught to children at all. Like the celebration of Labor Day, so many other holidays and story tales obfuscate the truth behind our history. And this makes us doomed to repeat it.