Opinion

What is Loyalty Day? And why on Earth does America celebrate it?

Instead of recognizing International Workers' Day like normal people, Americans are stuck with a Cold War anachronism

Happy International Workers' Day! Today we celebrate the tradition of working people and unions, without whose blood and sweat we wouldn't have the eight-hour workday, the minimum wage, or most of the social insurance programs that are the hallmarks of a just and civilized world.

Except here in the United States, we instead "celebrate" Loyalty Day, a jingoistic piece of commie-bashing invented during the first Red Scare and officially codified by President Eisenhower during the second one.

It's time to ditch Loyalty Day, for three reasons: it's a failure as a holiday; the American labor movement has a rich history that isn't acknowledged nearly enough; and the plight of the working man has become one of the defining issues of our era. Let's take them in turn.

First, Loyalty Day is the worst. I can't be the only one creeped out by the idea that there is a whole day devoted to "reaffirming our allegiance" to America. I'm not a soldier, I'll pass, thanks.

But more to the point, the holiday is so obscure and pointless that even conservatives have mistakenly concluded that President Obama's annual pro forma Loyalty Day declaration, which is basically identical to every previous one going back five decades, indicates that he came up with it. This is the natural result of inventing a holiday solely to troll the Soviets, and if even ideological sympathizers can't be bothered to remember what it's all about then it's time to put it down.

Second, we're failing to commemorate an important part of America's national heritage. Many forget this, but the International Workers' Day was explicitly founded to remember the events of the Haymarket affair in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Workers that day were striking for the eight-hour workday, and when the police attempted to break up a mass meeting, a bomb exploded, killing several officers and sparking a riot. The bomber was never found, but several labor leaders were tried under conditions of mass hysteria; four were eventually hanged.

American labor history is filled with stories like this, many much worse. In 1914, mine workers in Ludlow, Colorado, employed by mines principally owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., struck for months in an attempt to break out of conditions that approximated feudal serfdom. Company goons in the form of the Colorado militia brutally attacked their tent colony, burning it to the ground and killing over 20 people, including 10 children and babies. If those victims had been soldiers, there would be no question about remembering them.

Third, class politics are more relevant today than they have been since the days before World War II. In the postwar generation, many factors combined to create broadly shared prosperity, but that situation is an increasingly distant memory. As Matt Yglesias points out, in today's economy, the rich just get richer, and practically everyone else has been treading water or worse for 40 years. There's a reason why the most popular book in America is a tome by a French economist who argues that inherited wealth is going to eat Western democracy.

Conservatives whine that such talk is divisive, but their distractions and redbaiting are ringing increasingly hollow. The Soviet Union has been gone for 25 years. International Workers' Day is the American holiday we need for the 21st century.

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