Today Is Our Day

This May Day, we should celebrate the historic triumphs of the labor movement and the struggles to come.


Author:Jonah Walters, Jacobin

Emphasis Mine

The first May Day was celebrated in 1886, with a general strike of three hundred thousand workers at thirteen thousand businesses across the United States. It was a tremendous show of force for the American labor movement, which was among the most militant in the world.

Many of the striking workers — who numbered forty thousand in Chicago alone — rallied under the banners of anarchist and socialist organizations. Trade unionists from a variety of ethnic backgrounds — many of them recent immigrants — marched shoulder-to-shoulder, making a unified demand for the eight-hour day.

The movement to limit the workday posed a significant threat to American industrialists, who were accustomed to demanding much longer hours from their workers.

In the late nineteenth century, successive waves of immigration brought millions of immigrants to the United States, many of whom sought work in factories. Because unemployment was so high, employers could easily replace any worker who demanded better conditions or sufficient wages — so long as that worker acted alone. As individuals, workers were in no position to oppose the dehumanizing work their bosses expected of them.

But when workers acted together, they could exercise tremendous power over their employers and over society as a whole. Working-class radicals understood the unique power of collective action, fighting to ensure that the aggression of employers was often met by a groundswell of workers’ resistance.

For the last decades of the nineteenth century, industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie and George Pullman could get no peace. Periodic explosions of working-class activity provided a check on their power and prestige. But industrialists and their allies in government often responded with brutal force, quelling waves of worker militancy that demanded a fundamentally different kind of American prosperity, one in which the poor and downtrodden were included.

The movement for the eight-hour day was one such mass struggle. On May 1, 1886, workers all over the country took to the streets to demand a better life and a more just economy. The demonstrations lasted for days. 

But this surge of working-class resistance ended in tragedy. In Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a police massacre claimed the lives of several workers after someone — likely a provocateur working for one of the city’s industrial barons — tossed a homemade bomb into the crowd. The Chicago authorities took the bombing as an opportunity to arrest and execute four of the movement’s most prominent leaders — including the anarchist and trade unionist August Spies.

It was a severe setback to the workers’ movement. But the repression wasn’t enough to douse the struggle for good. As August Spies said during his trial:

[I]f you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement — the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery, the wage slaves, expect salvation — if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere the flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.

These words would prove prophetic. The next May Day, and every May Day since, workers across the world took to the streets to contest the terms of capitalist prosperity and gesture towards a fundamentally different world — a world in which production is motivated not by profit, but by human need.

Today, the power of the American labor movement is at a low. Many of its most important gains — including the right to the eight-hour day — have been dismantled by the anti-labor neoliberal consensus. But May Day still looms as a lasting legacy of the international movement for working-class liberation.

Obviously, a great deal has changed since those explosive decades at the end of the nineteenth century. The defeats suffered by the American workers’ movement may seem so profound that it can be tempting to regard the militancy that once rattled tycoons and presidents alike as a nothing more than a piece of history.

But we don’t have to gaze so far into the past for inspiring examples of struggle. Far more recent May Days provide glimpses at the transformative potential of worker movements.

Just ten years ago, in 2006, immigrant workers across the country stood up to restrictive immigration laws and abusive labor practices, organizing a massive movement of undocumented laborers that culminated in the so-called Great American Boycott (El Gran Paro Estadounidense). On May Day of that year, immigrant organizations and some labor unions came together to organize a one-day withdrawal of immigrant labor — dubbed “A Day Without Immigrants” — to demonstrate the essential role of immigrant workers in American industry.

Protests began in March and continued for eight weeks. The numbers are staggering — 100,000 marchers in Chicago kicked off the wave of demonstrations, followed by half a million marchers in Los Angeles a few weeks later, and then a coordinated day of action on April 10, which saw demonstrations in 102 cities across the country, including a march of between 350,000 and 500,000 protesters in Dallas.

By May Day, the movement had gained momentum, winning popular support all over the United States and around the world. On May 1 of that year, more than a million took to the streets in Los Angeles, joined by 700,000 marchers in Chicago, 200,000 in New York, 70,000 in Milwaukee, and thousands more in cities across the country. In solidarity with Latin American immigrants in the United States, labor unions around the world celebrated “Nothing Gringo Day,” a one day boycott of all American products.

Ever since, May Day has been recognized as a day of solidarity with undocumented immigrants — a fitting reminder of May Day’s origins in a movement that saw native-born and immigrant workers standing together to defend their common interests.

And this year, May Day presents us with more opportunities to mobilize support around an American labor movement showing signs of revitalization — this May Day, workers and activists across the country will stand in solidarity with the almost forty thousand striking Verizon workers, whose  intransigent managers have thus far refused to bargain with the union in good faith.

This May Day we follow in the footsteps of generations of labor radicals. These radicals saw in capitalism the horrors of an unjust economy, but dared to dream of something different — a reimagined economy in which the fruits of prosperity could be shared equally, among all people, in a just and democratic society.

Despite the setbacks of the labor movement — at home and worldwide — that dream is still living. The struggle continues.

Happy May Day. Take to the streets.


How the United States Whitewashes May Day

Source: Daily Kos

Author: Paul Hogarth

Emphasis Mine

When I was an 11-year-old kid in Chicago, my 5th Grade Class was assigned to do a School Assembly for the month of May.  As my teacher brainstormed what holidays are in May, I innocently suggested May Day.  “No, Paul,” she replied sternly.  “May Day is only celebrated in Communist countries – we can’t do a play about a Communist holiday.”  see:

Of course, Miss Barth was wrong – May Day is celebrated in almost every country in the world, except the United States.  Even though the holiday commemorates the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which happened – of all places – in Chicago.  But for years, the United States has intentionally whitewashed May Day from our culture and our consciousness.

Even in Chicago, it’s almost impossible to find Haymarket Square where the riot occurred – because it basically no longer exists.  As Occupy protesters plan to wage massive May Day rallies today across the country, they will have a basic problem – outside a circle of left-wing activists, most Americans have never heard of May Day.  People may be drawn to protest because of their economic woes or Wall Street greed, but not because of some holiday that they never learned about in school.

When I suggested May Day to my 5th Grade teacher for our school play, I was not a very precocious 11-year-old – or even a red-diaper baby.  I had just vaguely heard about May Day, as the holiday of fertility where you make flower baskets to celebrate the coming of spring.  Any association that May Day has to workers rights – or left-wing causes – was foreign to me.  But we should have learned about it in school, because the Haymarket Riot happened in Chicago.

On May 4, 1886, as part of a national effort by labor unions to pass an eight-hour workday, activists held a peaceful rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.  At around 10:30 p.m., a dynamite bomb exploded in the crowd – killing seven police officers and four civilians.  No one knows who threw the bomb, but the Police suspected and arrested eight anarchists.  They were tried and convicted in what everyone admits was a sham trial – and four of them were executed (one committed suicide in jail.)

The Haymarket Riot and its aftermath outraged working people and their allies across the world, and they started May Day to remember its martyrs and celebrate the struggles of working people.  Today, May Day is a national holiday in over eighty countries across the world.  While celebrated in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, it is also a holiday in countries like the United Kingdom and Spain.  After South Africa had its first free elections in 1994, May Day became a holiday.

In these countries, workers typically get the day off – and mass rallies are held to celebrate the struggle of working people for fair wages and an eight-hour workday.  My father now lives in Barcelona, Spain (after teaching at the University of Chicago for twenty years) – and only first learned about May Day because of its rallies there.

But May Day never took hold in the United States.  In 1894, after the Pullman Strike (which also happened in Chicago), President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day – the first Monday in September – a national holiday.  Labor Day was chosen to intentionally co-opt May Day, because they feared commemorating the Haymarket Riot would build support for communism and other radical causes.  In 1958 during the McCarthy Era, President Dwight Eisenhower took it even further by signing a law making May 1st Loyalty Day.  And in the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan enacted May 1st as “Law Day.”

Unless you were a red-diaper baby, Americans don’t grow up learning about May Day.  We did not get the day off in school, and we certainly didn’t do a 5th Grade play about it.  But when I was in the Chicago Public Schools, we got a three-day weekend in early March for Casimir Pulaski Day – because of Chicago’s large Polish-American community.  Even the first grade class at Lincoln Elementary School did a play about Pulaski Day.

Haymarket Square?  I lived in Chicago for 18 years, and only discovered its location while researching this article.  There isn’t much left of it, frankly.  What used to be Haymarket Square is a block of West Randolph Street – between the Loop & the Kennedy Expressway.  But we all knew Mrs. O’Leary’s barn where her cow kicked the lantern, because the Chicago Fire Department now has a Training Academy there.  Even though 20 years after the Great Chicago Fire, a reporter admitted he made it all up just to sell papers.

Which is why the Occupy Movement’s goal of a “General Strike” with thousands of people in the streets on May Day is a little tone-deaf.  Yes, May Day 2006 was a huge success – when thousands of Latino immigrant families marched in cities across the country.  But they were not marching to commemorate the Haymarket Riot – they were protesting mass deportations and the right-wing anti-immigrant hysteria.

What made the May Day 2006 rallies so powerful and influential was it rounded upmore than the usual suspects.  Spanish radio stations, churches and groups with deep ties in the Latino community spent weeks mobilizing people – so that folks who you would never expect to be political suddenly got involved.  Here in San Francisco, we’re used to seeing a left-wing political protest every week with the same crowd.  But the sight of immigrant moms marching down Market Street with baby strollers – and kids waving Mexican and American flags – was a sight to see.

Can the Occupy Movement generate a huge turnout of families being foreclosed on by the Wall Street banks, or young college graduates struggling for a job while under crushing debt?  Sure, but you won’t get the masses to turn out because it’s May Day.  And yet, all the flyers I’ve seen cater to the same left-wing crowd.  If you want to shut down the Golden Gate Bridge (which Occupy organizers now admit they can’t do), you need to expand your movement beyond the usual suspects – i.e., people who don’t know about May Day.

My 5th Grade Class at Lincoln Elementary School never did a school assembly about May Day – in fact, Miss Barth could never find a good holiday in May to do instead.  So we did a humorous play about a school cafeteria.  I played the mashed potatoes, who none of the children ate because they all wanted French fries.  Despite living in Chicago, it would be over a decade before I would learn the significance of May Day.

I often like to imagine what might have been if I were in Miss Barth’s shoes.  As the 5th Grade teacher, I would have had the kids do a play about May Day – where they re-enact the Haymarket Riot, and the conviction of eight anarchists.  The kids would have learned about Chicago’s proud labor history, and that these militant struggles brought workers’ rights we take for granted today – like the eight-hour workday.

After the play, the kids would turn to the audience and sing “Solidarity Forever” and “The Internationale” – before concluding the assembly by enthusiastically shouting: “Workers of the world unite!  You have nothing to lose but your chains!”  It would probably be at this point, where our School Principal – whose name (ironically) was Mr. May – would have walked up to me in the auditorium, and fired me on the spot.

Paul Hogarth is a writer and attorney living in San Francisco.  He is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco’s Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.