Why May Day Continues to Capture the Hearts and Imaginations of Workers

Raechel Anne Jolie

People gather to mark the May Day, International Workers' Day in Chicago, Illinois, United States on May 1, 2018. (Photo by Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

May 1 has an ener­gy that is pal­pa­ble across the globe. On this day, every year for more than a cen­tu­ry, work­ers across the world gath­er for Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers Day, also known as May Day. These march­es have inspired every­one from retired mechan­ics to immi­grant fast food work­ers to high school stu­dents to take the streets in hon­or of labor — and in a show of respect for the pow­er of a strike. Amid the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s egre­gious assaults on the lives of work­ers and immi­grants, show­ing up for a day that asserts the dig­ni­ty of work­ers from all back­grounds is more impor­tant than ever.

May Day serves as a reminder to all work­ing peo­ple around the world that we are fac­ing a com­mon strug­gle, and that we are still the major­i­ty,” Joel Fay­pon, a mem­ber of Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) Local 1008, tells In These Times. And that we still have the pow­er to dri­ve world pol­i­tics to a direc­tion that would best serve us.”

The his­to­ry of May Day 

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 social­ist 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 1, 1886.” Both the FOTLU and the Knights of Labor would sup­port strikes and demon­stra­tions to achieve it. 

In a his­to­ry of the events lead­ing up to the first May Day, Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World mem­ber Eric Chase notes that between 1884 and 1886, an esti­mat­ed quar­ter mil­lion work­ers in the Chica­go area became direct­ly involved in the cru­sade to imple­ment the eight-hour work day.”

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 police­man 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 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.

A Day of Action for immi­grants, queers and workers 

Arman­do Rob­les, the Pres­i­dent of UE Local 1110 who was part of the his­toric Repub­lic Win­dows and Doors occu­pa­tion, cen­ters this his­to­ry as a rea­son to keep hon­or­ing May Day. Peo­ple sac­ri­ficed their lives fight­ing for eight hours,” he explains, and in Chica­go and around the world, this day means some­thing impor­tant because of that.”

Just like in the late 1800s, Rob­les argues, we have to fight a lot of bat­tles all over the coun­try with this administration’s poli­cies against immi­grants. So, we have to not only cel­e­brate and march, but also hold work­shops, meet­ings and tell the gov­ern­ment we are not in favor of this treatment.”

In 2006, labor move­ment and immi­grant jus­tice lead­ers worked to cen­ter immi­grant labor in that year’s May Day march­es. In the face of the Sensen­bren­ner bill—a fed­er­al bill intro­duced in 2005 which would have crim­i­nal­ized assis­tance to undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants who were seek­ing food, hous­ing or med­ical ser­vices — May Day orga­niz­ers pro­claimed the march A Day With­out Immi­grants.” The bill passed in the House but failed in the Sen­ate, thanks in part to mass resis­tance. Still, com­pre­hen­sive immi­gra­tion reform has yet to be upheld, and the con­nec­tion between and over­lap among immi­grants and work­ers con­tin­ues to be an inte­gral theme of May Day rallies.

Today, with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s con­stant assault on immi­grants, May Day’s com­mit­ment to uphold the val­ue and dig­ni­ty of immi­grants is vital. Max­imil­lian Alvarez is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, a mem­ber of the Grad­u­ate Employ­ees’ Orga­ni­za­tion (Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers Local 3550), and the son of an immi­grant work­er from Mex­i­co. He tells In These Times, Peo­ple under­stand that the easy way out is to blame immi­grants — to punch down and find some oth­er des­per­ate group of peo­ple to kick off the life raft, with­out doing the hard­er task of under­stand­ing the mech­a­nisms of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism are ulti­mate­ly the rea­son they will nev­er achieve the sus­tain­able hap­pi­ness they were promised as hard­work­ing peo­ple. And I think this speaks to the imper­a­tive of May Day, the spir­it of inter­na­tion­al work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty. It’s a spir­it of sol­i­dar­i­ty that fun­da­men­tal­ly under­stands that cap­i­tal wins by divid­ing us, and by pit­ting us against each other.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, queer work­ers — includ­ing queer, immi­grant work­ers — are in a par­tic­u­lar­ly pre­car­i­ous time in the Unit­ed States, with right-wing pol­i­cy mak­ers work­ing to roll back exist­ing pro­tec­tions and to pre­vent new pro­tec­tions from being enact­ed. There are no explic­it and con­sis­tent fed­er­al pro­tec­tions for LGBTQ work­ers, and exist­ing pro­tec­tions pro­vid­ed through the Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion and judi­cial inter­pre­ta­tion are on their way to the Supreme Court, where they may be over­turned by next sum­mer. This makes union con­tracts an incred­i­ble asset to queer work­ers, who can fight for health­care, job pro­tec­tion and part­ner ben­e­fits through con­tract negotiations.

Be Marston, a shop stew­ard for UNITE HERE Local 8 in Port­land, Ore­gon, says she shows up to May Day mobi­liza­tions to help remind peo­ple that queer and trans work­ers are fight­ing eco­nom­ic injus­tice along­side their fight against trans and homo­pho­bic treat­ment. Being a mem­ber of the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty, I want to show every­one we are in this fight,” Marston notes. May Day is a day when we all pull out of our trench­es and remind our­selves of the great pow­er we have when we all come together.”

Kris Brown, a union work­er with the Inland­boat­man’s Union in San Fran­cis­co echoes that May Day is more than just a cel­e­bra­to­ry march. Labor Day in the U.S. is a day of rest for those work­ers who are for­tu­nate enough to have hol­i­days off, and May Day is a day of action,” he says.

May Day orga­niz­ers plan more than march­es. The Work­er Sol­i­dar­i­ty Net­work has pro­posed that May 1 should mark the start of glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty days,” which would involve actions in the streets, orga­niz­ing at work­places, and build­ing assem­blies of work­ers.” Sim­i­lar­ly, the Boston May Day Coali­tion has meet­ings year-round and is active in orga­niz­ing and sup­port­ing immi­grant jus­tice actions.

Around the globe, trade unions and oth­er work­er jus­tice groups plan march­es and oth­er events in hon­or of the Hay­mar­ket mar­tyrs, as well as var­i­ous labor actions and strikes in their respec­tive coun­tries. The Yel­low Vests, a com­plex eco­nom­ic jus­tice move­ment that began in France in Novem­ber of 2018, will spend its first May Day in the streets, re-assert­ing demands for fair wages and high­er tax­es on the rich. In Cuba, which is home to some of the largest May Day demon­stra­tions in the world, work­ers and stu­dents take the streets in sup­port social­ism and against harsh U.S. block­ades. South Africa has long cel­e­brat­ed Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers Day, and in 1950, the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of South Africa (CPSA) called for a May Day strike in sup­port of work­ers and in oppo­si­tion to the apartheid gov­ern­ment. That strike end­ed in state-sanc­tioned vio­lence, leav­ing 18 dead. Every May Day since has in part hon­ored the lives lost in the strug­gle for work­er jus­tice and self-determination.

Reviv­ing the strike 

May Day is also a strike. Most march­es ask us to walk off work, in hon­or of the 1886 his­to­ry, and as a reminder of the neces­si­ty of keep­ing this labor tac­tic alive. Author and orga­niz­er Jane McAlevey explains in her book No Short­cuts that, par­tic­u­lar­ly now, we can’t count on courts or politi­cians to pro­tect work­ers. Instead, we must fight and build pow­er in the the eco­nom­ic are­na” in order to trans­form society.

As Trump admin­is­tra­tion attacks on work­ers get worse, the U.S. has seen a dra­mat­ic increase in the num­ber of strikes: teach­ers in West Vir­ginia, Ari­zona, Okla­homa, Col­orado, North Car­oli­na and Cal­i­for­nia; nurs­es in Ver­mont; Mar­riott Hotel work­ers in var­i­ous loca­tions; food ser­vice work­ers at Har­vard and Tufts; and the recent 11-day Stop and Shop strike in New Eng­land. In all of these cas­es, the pow­er­ful act of ceas­ing work result­ed in wins for work­ers that they hadn’t been able to obtain through oth­er means. The strike reminds us all that it is work­ers who cre­ate wealth, who have the pow­er, and who deserve fair contracts.

Jes­si­ca Sal­fia is a mem­ber of the West Vir­ginia teach­ers union, and was a key play­er in the 2018 strike that result­ed in a 5% pay increase. For her and her fel­low teach­ers, the strike was a tool they knew they had to use for their and their student’s sur­vival. Sal­fia explains that after years of work­place set­backs — slashed salaries, increased class sizes and the loss of class­room resources — the teach­ers knew they had to take seri­ous action. For me, it was death by a thou­sand cuts,” says Sal­fia. And when they said we were gonna have to deal with bad health care and a pay cut, teacher’s said this time, no, this is it, we’ve had enough.’”

Danielle Man­ning, a pub­lic school teacher and co-chair of Unit­ed Teach­ers Los Ange­les, says that his­to­ry played an impor­tant role in her union’s abil­i­ty to go on strike in Jan­u­ary of 2019. A few of our teach­ers were on strike in the 89 strike. And know­ing the his­to­ry of strik­ing — that it’s pos­si­ble — is important.”

Joe Jarmie, a mem­ber of Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers Local 371, also went on strike this year, walk­ing off his job as a meat cut­ter at Stop and Shop where he’s been work­ing for 33 years. Joe says the sol­i­dar­i­ty from oth­er unions and the com­mu­ni­ty helped keep their spir­its up dur­ing the 11-day negotiations.

We got over­whelm­ing sup­port from unions and the com­mu­ni­ty. The first day we had box­es of 15 piz­zas, 10 cas­es of water, 30 dozen donuts, 70 box­es of cof­fee,” he said, adding, I kept track, I want­ed to make sure who I should send thank you notes to. So if that’s not com­mu­ni­ty sup­port, I don’t know what is.”

Raechel Anne Jolie is a writer, edu­ca­tor and media mak­er based in Min­neapo­lis. She holds a PhD from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, and has been pub­lished in numer­ous aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals and pop­u­lar press sites. She cov­ers labor, pris­ons and LGBTQ jus­tice, and her mem­oir </i>Rust Belt Femme<i> is forth­com­ing from Belt Pub­lish­ing. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @reblgrrlraechel.
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