May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is celebrated around the world by labor unions, socialist parties, and anarchists. May Day’s origins go back to the 1886 Haymarket Affair, when hundreds of thousands of US workers walked off the job, and 40,000 went on strike in Chicago for an eight-hour workday. Despite its origins, May Day is largely unknown in the US today. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez joins Rattling the Bars for a discussion on the history of May Day, and how the persecution of organizers in the wake of the Haymarket Massacre highlights the importance of extending solidarity from the labor movement to the fight to abolish the prison industrial complex.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I’m Maximillian Alvarez, editor-in-chief here at The Real News. First and foremost, Mansa and I and the whole Real News crew want to wish all of you watching and listening a Happy May Day or International Workers’ Day. This episode, of course, is a special crossover edition of Rattling the Bars that we are releasing on May 1. And we are here to talk about the spirit and the meaning of May Day. We’re obviously not going to be able to give y’all a full rundown of the history of May Day, but we will talk a little bit about that history.
And more importantly, we’re going to talk about, from our respective areas of expertise, i.e., the fight against labor exploitation and the fight for worker justice and dignity and the fight against the prison-industrial complex. Because we think that, especially today, it’s important to remember that May Day really embodies the spirit of the struggle against these twin forces, and it shows that the fight for worker liberation and the fight to liberate ourselves from the body-swallowing, society-destroying monster of the prison-industrial complex are fundamentally intertwined. And so we want to have an open and frank discussion between me and Mansa about why it’s so important for us, on today of all days, but throughout the year, to remember that these fights are necessarily connected.
And before we get rolling, just in case folks don’t know much about the history of this sacred holiday, it is, as I said before, called International Workers’ Day. It is a holiday that is recognized and celebrated around the world. There’s actually quite a fascinating history about why we in North America don’t really celebrate May Day like we once did. We can’t go into all of that, but if y’all are interested, you should go check out a great podcast that we released at The Real News last year on May Day that details the history of how and why the United States and Canada made a very conscious decision to move the labor holiday in the country from the more radical May Day May 1 to Labor Day in September. But we can’t go into that now. But rest assured, it wasn’t to embrace and celebrate the revolutionary spirit of this holiday. It was, in fact, to do the opposite.
But of course, May Day, the modern May Day, it was really founded in the 19th century here in the United States after what has become known as the Haymarket Affair. And I’m going to read to y’all a bit of a passage from a great article that was written in 2019 by the brilliant author Raechel Anne Jolie for the magazine In These Times – Shout out to our comrades over at In These Times magazine.
So this article was called “Why May Day Continues to Capture the Hearts and Imaginations of Workers”. And Raechel writes in this article, “May Day was born in Chicago in 1886. During the late 19th century, workers, tired of 10- to 16-hour days and little pay, began to organize along socialists and anarchist principles. Whether in formal unions, political parties, or cultural groups, working-class people in the United States were motivated by their dismal conditions and the hope they found in anti-capitalist ideas. With discussion about unfair working conditions spreading like a fever, the 1884 Convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) concluded with a declaration that ‘eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1st, 1886.’ Both the FOTLU and the Knights of Labor would support strikes and demonstrations to achieve it.
“When May 1 finally arrived, 40,000 workers went on strike in Chicago, and over 300,000 workers across the United States walked off their jobs. For two days, rallies and demonstrations ensued without violence, but on May 3, police attacked and killed picketing workers at the McCormick Reaper Works Plant. Labor leaders called for a public meeting to protest the deaths, set for the evening of May 4 in Haymarket Square.
“The events that ensued at Haymarket are fuzzy: A chaotic scene of protesters and police became the site of a bomb explosion (whose source has never been proven), followed by gunshots. When things were quiet, the scene left nearly a dozen dead (the exact numbers are disputed, but the Illinois Labor History Society states that seven policemen and four workers were killed). Despite having no hard evidence on their side, the police placed blame on eight people they believed to be anarchists: Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, and Louis Lingg. These charges were rooted in not only anti-anarchist and anti-communist sentiment of the time, but also deeply entrenched xenophobia. Much of the labor force was made up of immigrants, and so anarchists, communists, immigrants, and workers became easy scapegoats.
“Six of the eight defendants were immigrants, and seven of the eight men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Two of the men’s sentences were changed to life in prison, one was exonerated, and five remained to be hanged. Louis Lingg was found dead in his jail cell before the execution. And so, on November 11, 1887, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Albert Parsons, and August Spies were hanged. May Day celebrations are meant to honor the lives of these people and the movements from which they emerged.”
Now, I wanted to build on that really quick and center us in the words of one of the Haymarket martyrs themselves, Albert Parsons. And then I want to get Mansa’s thoughts on this. But Albert Parsons famously wrote from his cell on death row before he was hanged by the state, “And now to all I say, falter not. Lay bare the inequities of capitalism; expose the slavery of law; proclaim the tyranny of government; denounce the greed, cruelty, abominations of the privileged class who riot and revel on the labor of their wage slaves.”
So that’s really the fulcrum of this sacred holiday. This is the furnace through which the fires of May Day were kindled, and they continued to burn today in the year of our Lord, 2023. And so again, we’re going to talk about how and why we have to keep that fire burning. But to start us off, Mansa, I was curious – We’ve gotten to work together now for a year. It’s been an honor and privilege to do so.
Mansa Musa: Definitely.
Maximillian Alvarez: Obviously, as you’ve said on the show, you were locked up for 48 years, many of which were spent with our departed brother and comrade, Eddie Conway. I was wondering if I could start by asking you, what, if anything, May Day meant to you guys on the inside.
Mansa Musa: And as you was reading this information, I’m thinking about how the attitude, the reason behind May Day was the inhumane working conditions and the long hours. So you can juxtapose that, or you can place that in any prison, inhumane working conditions and long hours. But in terms of your question, May Day in most prisons started out much like what we know as May Day in the United States, the festivities. So you see a lot of that in prison. It’s an opportunity, ‘cause most people be off work. So the institution is more prone to allow you to have organized sports activity, competitive sports activity. But for us, the revolutionary collective that I was a part of, and most revolutionary collectives in prison, they take it as an opportunity to educate the population about the work conditions that we are undergoing. And in terms of industry, if you work in the industry, poor working conditions, long hours, no pay or little or no pay.
So we try to educate the population about the need to understand that we need to organize this industry that we making astronomical money for and not getting no return on. And that might come in the fashion of telling them to try to get them to organize them to strike, organize them to unionize, organize them to slow down, or in an anarchist fashion, sabotage. So any of those things was on the table.
A lot of times what we were doing in the revolutionary collective I was a part of in the pen, we would take this opportunity to try to get the prisoners not to go in the kitchen, to focus on better living conditions. Saying, well, okay, this is an opportunity to get to educate the population. Say, look, don’t go in the kitchen to eat because the food is bad. The way we living is bad. This is an opportunity for us to show solidarity around getting better living conditions. So yeah, it had multifaceted aspects to it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well it’s really, really interesting to hear you say that because, like you said, I think there is a lost cultural memory in the United States, especially about what the significance of May Day is. That’s not to say we’ve all forgotten it, but Labor Day in the fall has definitely become this sanitized labor holiday where we can celebrate how far we’ve come. And that’s really the function of Labor Day as it’s known in North America. And this, again, there’s a whole history behind this, this was very explicitly the goal of the people who pushed for moving Labor’s holiday from May 1 to the current Labor Day. It was more of honoring the sacrifices workers had made in the past to get us to this realized utopia of the modern United States. There was this very American exceptionalist conceit underwriting everything, and that in the 20th century, in the 21st century and beyond, we were really enjoying the fruits of all those past struggles.
But the implication is that the struggle isn’t still going. Whereas that’s what I think one of the fundamental differences between May Day and Labor Day is that May Day both honors the sacrifices including the martyrdom, the murder, the lost life of all workers who toiled under slavery in the fields, in factories, people who spent their whole lives and have even lost their lives in coal mines and industrial manufacturing, so on and so forth. And that struggle goes back to the beginning of time, really.
You and I were talking about this, that one of my favorite quotes that’s ever been said on my show, Working People, was when I was interviewing the great labor organizer Cooper Caraway a couple years back. And Cooper said something to me that really stuck with me. He said that the labor movement in this country didn’t just begin when the first group of workers sat down and called themselves the Amalgamated Bricklayers. The labor movement goes much farther back than that. He said to me, from the first time one human being had to serve another to survive, the labor movement was born.
Mansa Musa: Exactly.
Maximillian Alvarez: And so I think that understanding that continual, eternal struggle over that system of domination, the struggle for dignity while we are all, the vast, vast majority of us, put in that position of serving others to survive, May Day honors that legacy and remembers and reminds all of us that we are very much carrying that legacy on today. And I don’t know, if you watch The Real News, that couldn’t be more apparent, because we’re talking about people still fighting against the prison-industrial complex, the police state, at the same time that we’re fighting against exploitation in workplaces across the board.
It doesn’t have to be international behemoths like Amazon, though it includes them too. But also, teachers who are being told to teach 35 to 40 students when they should be teaching half that; nurses and hospital workers who are having more patients piled on them than they can manage; railroad workers like the ones that we’ve talked to here who are having their staff cut left and right year after year and being told to do more with less. Same goes for workers in the fast food industry, the sex industry, so on and so forth.
And that, you start to see some real eye-popping parallels between now and that period around the Haymarket Affair. Because in the two years leading up to Haymarket, was it 1884 to 1886, you saw a lot of strikes in this country, more so than you had seen in the previous few years. You saw this labor strife, you saw a political establishment trying to figure out what to do about this labor unrest and using the state and prisons and the police as one mechanism to repress that movement. And you see the same shit happening today.
Mansa Musa: Exactly.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I wanted to build on that and talk about… Because I want people to understand that it’s not just that we’re saying that we need to fight the prison-industrial complex and labor exploitation at the same time; we need to understand that they’re fundamentally working in tandem, and so those fights need to necessarily be doing the same. So in your mind, let’s tease out how the prison-industrial complex serves a vital function for the exploitative system of capitalism.
Mansa Musa: All right, and you made a good observation, ’cause when we think about May 1 and then we look at May 1 giving birth to this concept that we know now, solidarity, and it went international, and we know the United States would had, it was opposed that primarily because they didn’t want to give a international characteristic to communism. But in terms of what you just outlined, when you look at the prison-industrial complex and the 13th Amendment, the 13th Amendment automatically sets up a labor pool, free labor, because it says that involuntary… Slavery don’t exist except for if you’ve been duly convicted of a crime. So therefore, automatically your rights as a human being ceases to exist. More importantly, the relationship between you and your work ceases to exist.
So in the prison-industrial complex, because you got free labor, give you an example, in the federal government they got what they call UNICOR, federal prisons, they got what they call UNICOR. And Congress passed a bill to say that all federal contracts, labor contracts, prisons get first dibs on them. So now, that means automatically that if you a company and you want to produce uniforms for the military, you might put a machine shop together and you might want to produce some of the machinery that’s going to be used in helicopters or places within the federal government. You can’t compete, because if the federal government and Federal Bureau of Prisons has the want to get them or the need to get them or just want them, they got first dibs on them. So now, that means that the labor movement, AFL CIO, they can’t compete with that because the federal government already say that, no, you can’t bid on this. You don’t have no right to this. And that means that workers in society don’t have an opportunity to get this.
And more importantly, the people that’s doing the work are doing it for $0.60 a day, $0.90 a day, or less. And you don’t have no right to unionize. You don’t have no right to fair working conditions. You can work, basically the same thing you set out earlier, you can work long hours for less pay. So it’s a direct correlation between the labor movement and the prison-industrial complex, so much so that prisoners have tried to unionize.
In Jackson, Michigan, prisoners tried to unionize. In North Carolina, prisoners tried to unionize, and that case went all the way to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court basically said that under the 13th Amendment, you don’t have no right. So if you don’t have no right, then you don’t have the right to unionize. It’s almost like the Dred Scott decision saying, well the reason why you can’t sue is because you’re not considered a human being, you considered property. So when in the prison-industrial complex, you don’t have no right to unionize because you’re not considered a person that’s relative to be in a union, you’re considered chattel. And that’s the whole thing with the prison-industrial complex.
It’s very important that the labor movement understand it because if you don’t agree with what a person is locked up for, you have to accept this reality, that industry that got controlled over them is going to take a job from you and can take it from you because they got endless cheap labor and they don’t have to pay them the same thing, Medicaid, Medicare. They don’t have to take no money out for their taxes. In terms for them, they don’t have to say, they being taxed vicariously, but they don’t have to put no money aside for their quarters. So they ain’t gotta worry about social security. A person been locked up for 48 years like myself, it’ll take me a hundred years to get my quota at the rate I got to work.
So this is the problem that’s associated with when we think about May Day. And we, in this country, should not say Labor Day. We should always say May Day. And the reason why we should say May Day, it’s the same way as we were saying in this country July the Fourth. It’s got the same implication as July the Fourth. If July the Fourth is considered Independence Day for the United States, then May Day is considered the day that people decided to stand up for their rights and their humanity and get to understand that the means of production that they are controlled, and that means of production is not controlled over them.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell, yeah. I love the way you put that, and I think you really teased out two really important pillars that hold up this mutually beneficial system of capitalist exploitation and the prison-industrial complex. So both, as we said, serve intimate functions that help the other. And so when it comes to building up this massive prison-industrial complex, as we have in the United States, we imprison a greater percentage of our population than any other country in the world. We got over 2 million people locked away as we speak. You, yourself, as you said, you were locked up for 48 years, and in that time did a lot of free or near-free labor without any of the actual basic human rights that other workers have or should have in this country.
So even just there we see, like I said, these two essential functions that the prison-industrial complex serves for the benefit of capitalism. One, prisoners themselves, people who are incarcerated, provide, not necessarily willingly, but you’re forced to provide, in many cases, exceedingly cheap basically slave labor for, not just federal contractors or the federal government itself, but also a lot of private industry.
Companies like Whole Foods have been using prison labor. Trust me, dear Rattling the Bars viewers and listeners, you’ll be shocked to learn how many corporations in the US and outside use and exploit prison labor in the United States to help their bottom line.
And so, like you said, while people who aren’t incarcerated and members of the working class are kind of always pointing their fingers at each other and saying, oh, immigrants are stealing our jobs.
Mansa Musa: Exactly.
Maximillian Alvarez: Undocumented workers are stealing our jobs, non-union workers are stealing our jobs. And as we always say at The Real News, other workers are not your fucking enemy.
Mansa Musa: That’s right.
Maximillian Alvarez: It’s the capitalists who are taking your job and shipping it overseas where they can exploit workers in East Asia or South America or Africa, and they’re not going to pay them better, they’re going to pay them less and they’re going to pocket the difference. They’re doing the same thing with prisons. And so you have this permanent source of cheap, near-free labor that can continually suppress wages outside of the prisons. So that’s one crucial function that the prisons serve.
Now, the other is that, as Marx and others wrote about so doggedly, is that when you live in a capitalist society that is so unkind to the plight of poor and working people, it creates this cruel incentive structure where working people are compelled by hunger, they’re compelled by the need to provide housing for themselves in a society that doesn’t consider housing a human right. People have to buy groceries and feed themselves and their families in a society that does not think that it has to provide those things for other people. There’s so many ways that, under capitalism, we are pushed into low wage work that we have to survive.
Mansa Musa: That’s right.
Maximillian Alvarez: But on top of that, we also live in a society that criminalizes poverty. We’re seeing it right now from Eric Adams in New York to the bat shit stuff going on in California and San Francisco, people are calling for mass imprisonment of unhoused people. And that’s our solution,the people who can’t make it under capitalism, the answer is to shuttle them into prisons. And so in both cases, the prison-industrial complex serves this essential function for the needs of capital.
Mansa Musa: It’s the arms of the capitalists. And George Jackson, he made the observation about the criminal injustice system, how it is, in fact, the institution that is representative of capitalism. And to resonate your point because you find that – And this is for the workers, this is for workers, like Marx said, workers of the world unite. Well unite around this idea: Unite around the idea that you have an institution that’s primarily designed to exploit people, cheap labor, and got endless resources when it comes to that around the world. So this institution, you can’t compete with. In India, you can’t compete with the prison, because what you doing in India for a penny, in the institution, they doing it for nothing. So that way they don’t need you to pick the rice, they don’t need you to sew the clothes. They can take the person they locked up, can make them do it for nothing and they don’t have the right to resist.
It’s the same thing in the United States. In the United States, as you made that observation, in the United States, a corporation can say, okay, well we are building auto parts, machine parts. And the union say we want more money in this part of the industry. They can say, okay, it’s cheaper for us to take all this machinery and put it in a prison and then let the prisoners do the same thing that you was asking. And we don’t have to give you… 401k ain’t involved. Medical ain’t involved. Wage increments ain’t involved because we can put this machinery in there in the prison and won’t have no problem.
Case in point, when I was in prison, I was pressing tags. Now, at one point in time in the United States of America, that was an industry in America, but that industry is now in the prisons. Metal shops in Maryland, all the furniture that’s being made for the state, colleges, state government, local government, all that is being made in the industry in one of the institutions. Where before, it was being made, somebody that was contracting with the state to get that.
So to resonate your point, it’s a direct correlation between capitalism and the prison-industrial complex. But more importantly, the prison-industrial complex is an arm of capitalism. It serves no other purpose than for the reason of exploitation and dehumanization of people. And until we, as workers, like our parents, until people taxpayers realize that you getting exploited all the way around, you paying taxes to keep this mammoth thing up with these blood suckers running, you also, at your own expense, creating a system where you can’t compete. You can’t compete with this industry for a job. So now you going to find yourself, like you say, the only way you wind up getting a job in a prison is you go to prison.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and since I’ve got you here, and I know we got to wrap up in a second, but you were telling me some pretty wild things about what it was like to be a worker in that environment. Pressing tags, like you said. I was wondering, for folks who are watching and listening to this who have never seen what that looks like, what was it like for you and the other folks inside doing that work day in, day out?
Mansa Musa: And this is a universal principle in the industry in America, all prisons, because you get incentives for the amount of work you produce, you get a base pay. Base pay might be $0.90 cents a day. Your incentive might be $2 a day, add the $2. So now to get the incentive, you have to do an astronomical amount of work. For example, we was pressing tags, so we had to press what they call a series, might be 42,000 tags. And you want to try to get the 42,000 tags pressed by a certain time so you can get an incentive. So the time might be within three weeks. And that means that tags got to be pressed, tags got to be boxed up and sent to the DMV. If they ain’t boxed up and sent to the DMV, you ain’t going to get the incentive.
So this is the problem. So we work endless hours, everybody is in a rotation, you get an hour break, everybody in the rotation. And then at the end of that, you got to make sure that you press 2,000 tags, you shuffle 2,000 tags, you collect 2,000 tags, you stack 2,000 tags. This is a continuous process. At the end of the day, I know when I used to come back, my forearms used to be, because I had these heavy [inaudible], my forearms used to be sore. And all I wanted to do when I went back was go to bed. And this is an endless process in all the shops: the wood shop, the clothing shop, the shop that they put in the sanitation supplies in, all these shops had the same incentive, because it’s the state use industry, but it’s called Maryland Correction Enterprise, is a corporation that came in and replaced, that’s being used to replace any private industry.
So this is an industry to say, it’s called Maryland Correctional Enterprise, where they are allowed to produce products for the state cheaply, and they making astronomical money. So at the end of the day, the label that we produce, it go back to what you say. The reason why May 1 came to exist, they say May 1, which was May Day, say we going to strike for better wages and better living conditions. This is why May 1 came into existence. Well, we are now suffering from the same thing that existed on May 1, that gave birth to May 1. Well, it’s May 1 all the time in prison.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, yeah. That’s powerfully put. And building off that, we can share our final thoughts on May Day and why folks should continue to fight that fight that May Day represents, and fight it for all poor, working, and oppressed people, very much including people who are incarcerated. Because as we’ve said, our struggles are fundamentally intertwined and our enemies are fundamentally one and the same, or they are working very closely together to exploit and oppress us.
And I think you’re absolutely right, it’s so important to underline for people that… Because I think when especially people on the left talk about the history of May Day and the Haymarket Affair and the Haymarket martyrs, obviously, we focus on the fact that they were socialists, communists, anarchists. They had a more left understanding of the system that they were toiling under. But we have to understand, as you said, that the ground swell that brought so many people to Haymarket Square in the first place, that brought so many people in 1886 to walk off the job, was fundamentally the fight for an eight-hour day.
It was the fight against dying on the job because you were working with unsafe machinery that would tear your limbs off. It was trying to keep children out of the factories. So many of these enduring struggles that we are now, as you said, either we’re fighting again or we never stopped fighting. As we speak, there are Republican ghouls in state houses in Iowa, Arkansas, and Ohio who are literally rolling back child labor laws because they don’t want to pay adult workers what they deserve and actually ensure a comfortable, dignified life for their employees. Rather than do that, they’re just going to try to expand the labor pool of cheap labor. So children, they’re trying to raise the retirement age, and of course, they’re going to continue to use prison –
Mansa Musa: That’s right.
Maximillian Alvarez: …Labor. And so I say all that to say that the reason that Haymarket became such a flashpoint for so many people is because the movement grew out of the grassroots of working people demanding better. But what the socialist, anarchist, and communist politics that were wrapped up in that, I think why they’re so important is because they provided people with a vision for understanding the nature of that exploitation and what needed to be done about it. Because if you have that mindset, as you often say, then you understand that this exploitation that we’re fighting in 1886 and now, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature of capitalism.
Mansa Musa: Exactly.
Maximillian Alvarez: So you have to upend this system. As Albert Parsons famously said in that quote that I read at the beginning, you have to call this shit out. You have to understand that the system’s not going to reform itself, that it is bloodthirsty, that it will drain everything it can out of you and out of our society. And we’re now talking about that same system killing the planet that we all depend on.
Mansa Musa: That’s right.
Maximillian Alvarez: And so I don’t know, I think that the cause is more urgent than ever, but I think the spirit is very much eternal and stretches all the way back to, like Cooper Caraway said, the first time one human had to serve another to survive. As long as that inequality exists, as long as the capacity for exploitation exists and the ruthless destruction of lives and bodies and nature, we have more to do. We have more to fight for. And so I hope that on this May Day we continue to keep fighting and to remember what it is we’re actually fighting for. So I guess with that, those are my thoughts. Do you have any closing thoughts on May Day?
Mansa Musa: My closing thought, I want to also quote somebody that was amongst that cohort, August Spies. He said this, “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” And the voices that’s being strangled today are the voices of workers throughout the world. The voices that’s being strangled today are the voices of prisoners, the voices that’s disenfranchised. And this May Day, we need to reflect on that. And more importantly, we need to reflect on who is giving volume to the voiceless. And in this regard, I want to advocate that The Real News and Rattling the Bars is giving voice and volume to the voice of the voiceless.
And this is why it’s so important that we continue to support this mechanism. Without supporting this mechanism, you’re not going to get the real news about May Day and International Workers’ Day. You going to be celebrating Labor Day, and you going to be celebrating it as a joyous occasion. But unbeknownst to yourself is that you’re celebrating the murder and the hanging and the lack of due process of people that only wanted to stand up for their rights. So instead of celebrating it in regard to being a joyous occasion, you’ll look at it in the context that it was birthed in: a context of equality and humanity. And that’s really my final thought.
This is The Real News. This is Rattling the Bars. Thank you very much for listening, and we hope that you continue to support us, because you know what, we’re actually the real news.