- - Thursday, April 28, 2016


One hundred years ago Sunday (May 1, 1916) the “greatest strike of laboring men in the history of the United States” took place, according to a front-page story in the Washington [D. C.] Herald newspaper. Some two million workers struck on May Day, far outdistancing the strife that typified the late-19th century when the day was a code word for industrial violence. The Haymarket Square protest in Chicago in the wake of strikes on May Day 1886 was the most notorious, with a bomb explosion that killed 11 and wounded more than a hundred.

Public reaction to the Haymarket incident was swift and irate. The eight demonstrators charged with murder were described by one newspaper as a “horde of foreigners, representing the lowest stratum found in humanity.” Another periodical was even more critical, calling the accused “long-haired, wild-eyed, bad smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches who never did an honest hour’s work in their lives.”

Congress got smart, unanimously legislating a national Labor Day in 1894 that made the first Monday in September an alternative to May Day and undercutting unionism by offering all workers a holiday. Although other May Day outbursts still occurred, labor unrest diminished because unions also got smart. The most prominent organization, the American Federation of Labor, concentrated on labor’s elite workers, not the masses, shunning protests and favoring collective bargaining.

Thus the difference in 1916 when May Day activity was a one-day story, with little violence and mostly show, as illustrated by an orderly parade of 100,000 workers on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

After 1917, when May Day in the Soviet Union became a day of commitment to the goals of the working class — the proletariat — the date became a matter of diplomatic concern for the United States that mushroomed after 1945 as a result of the Cold War. And instead of workers doing their thing on May 1, military might became the fashion, spreading to other countries such as China.

Not surprisingly, with the demise of the Soviet Union and with changes in China, Americans breathed a sigh of relief. Some pundits in the 1990s even prophesied the end of historical military conflict as traditional enemies became more akin to the United States.

The irony — and tragedy — of recent American May Days is not only that the pundits were wrong about the end of conflict, but the resulting social and political environment and its enemies have changed significantly and for the worse in terms of threats. In the old days when labor protests got out of hand, the police could always recognize who the alleged bad guys were. They were factory workers, and their blue-collar clothes made them easily identifiable. When military demonstrations in the Soviet Union, China or North Korea became more prominent, again, the bad guys wore uniforms.

The dilemma today is that the terrorist who threatens the nation on May Day and every other day of the year defies easy identification. Nobody can really predict what a terrorist looks like, does for a living and where he or she resides. Profiling of ethnic or religious groups is proscribed, and Homeland Security employees at airports simply can’t subject all passengers to a rigorous search procedure.

In short, labor protests and military demonstrations of old pale in contrast to today’s worries. Mohamed Abrini, charged with participating in the terrorism in Brussels in March, looked like any other roving tourist in an airport. And for those of us old enough to recall the old cowboy movies in which the heroes and villains were readily identifiable by the color of hats they wore, recall that the convicted terrorist in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, wore, in an ultimate insult to American tradition, a white cap.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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