Why May Day?
May 01, 2006
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange . He can be reached by email at email@example.com
For many older Americans, "May Day" brings to mind images of phalanxes of Soviet soldiers, goose-stepping through Red Square behind massive tanks, while millions of onlookers obediently cheer. For some, "May Day" is a pagan holiday, Beltane, known more (and loved) for maypoles or other fertility rituals than for political struggles. But May Day, the political version, is an American holiday—one celebrated for the last century everywhere in the world except America, and one whose origins are well worth remembering. Because May Day began as a strike for basic workplace rights we're now in the process of losing. And that strike was largely by immigrant workers, which is exactly what America will see when immigrants and their supporters strike, march and rally across the country on a “National Day of Action for Comprehensive Immigration Reform” on this coming Monday—May Day.
Chicago, in 1886, was a rapidly growing city, a polyglot of immigrant languages and cultures. On the first May Day—May 1, 1886—"International Workers' Day" began as a series of general strikes in Chicago and other Midwestern cities for the eight- hour day. Some 340,000 workers participated; it was a campaign that had already been going on strong for quite some time. But the strike took on particular significance when, two days later, police attacked striking workers at McCormick Reaper, on Chicago's south side. Four workers were killed and over 200 injured. And at a demonstration to protest the police riot on the following day, May 4, a bomb went off at Chicago's Haymarket Square—the infamous "Haymarket Massacre" that killed eight police and wounded 60. The bombing led to death sentences for eight leading anarchists, including several German immigrants, convicted with no evidence at all for conspiracy to commit murder.
Three of the anarchists were pardoned before their deaths, the other five posthumously. But the public and police hostility to organized labor that was whipped up over Haymarket meant that, in turn, May Day became an international labor rallying cry for the right of workers to organize in general, and for the eight-hour day in particular. By the end of the decade, May Day was a holiday celebrated by workers and workers' movements in every industrialized country in the world.
It still is—now, in fact, it's observed globally. Except, ironically, in the land of the holiday's birth. The holiday's burgeoning popularity led Congress, in 1894, to establish "Labor Day" in September to honor American workers—a holiday established, not by ordinary workers themselves as an expression of empowerment, but by big business and their Congressional apologists as a way to try to dictate what workers were and weren't allowed to celebrate. One day belonged to the workers; the other 365 to big business, and we were to work as many hours of those days as business pleased.
The strategy failed, of course. Eventually. It took another entire generation of struggle, but by 1912, federal workers were granted the eight-hour day; and in 1917, while America was desperate for the cooperation of unions in the war effort, the Eight Hour Act became law. And there, one would think, the matter was settled.
Okay, quick: Do you actually work only eight hours in a day? Only 40 hours in a week? Five days?
Not very many of us do, any longer. We stay longer in the office, we take work home with us, we take work everywhere with us, because at some level we fear that if we don't, either the company will fail or it will replace us with people who'll make those sacrifices. Nor, in the land that gave birth to May Day, do workers here get anywhere close to the vacation or sick day benefits we get in other industrialized countries. And let's not even talk about health care coverage, which isn't even linked to one's workplace in most of the industrialized world—it's accepted as a universal need and right. Here, our system has already rendered health care too expensive to obtain without insurance. Now, it's denying more and more of the workforce health insurance that covers meaningful parts of the cost of actually getting sick, or, for nearly 50 million of us, any health insurance at all. Income for most working families is not keeping up with inflation. And for all of these effective losses in compensation for our work, we're still working harder and longer hours than our grandparents.
It's not too different now, really, from 1886. Then, as now, big business was exploiting the desperation and relative powerlessness of cheap immigrant labor, and in the process trying to depress the wages and establish exploitative precedents for all workers. Then, as now, much of the rest of the public feared and distrusted a part of the labor force that often didn't even speak English. Then, as now, the immigrants had finally had enough. And marched and struck.
Today the largest yet wave of immigrant marches and rallies will take place in scores of cities across the United States. Their immediate focus is proposed congressional reforms, the most prominent of which is a ruthlessly exploitative “guest worker” proposal backed by President George W. Bush that would leave immigrants' legal standing wholly at the mercy of a single employer. But the larger issue is America's imposition of corporate-friendly trade policies that have decimated economies in Mexico and elsewhere, spurring economic emigration to America, while at the same time exporting millions of better-paying jobs from America itself.
The immigrants' struggle is not just legal, but economic, and a matter of self-respect and self-preservation; it is, in important ways, the leading edge of a struggle all American workers are facing. Today, find the immigrant march in your community. Join it.
Happy May Day.