Happy May Day
“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” -Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Hellraiser.
Here in the U.S. Labor Day is a muted affair celebrated at the end of the summer. It’s mostly lost its meaning to millions of people as anything other than the time at which kids go back to school and we stop wearing white. (Some of us.)
But around the world, the real labor celebration is May 1. International Workers’ Day began here in the U.S. when, 125 years ago, police opened fire on a protest at the West Randolph Street Haymarket in Chicago in favor of the 8-hour work day, after a dynamite bomb was thrown by an unknown person. Eight anarchists were arrested and four executed, not for any evidence that they threw the bomb but for their role as agitators.
Socialists and labor supporters around the world began celebrating May 1 as workers’ day, but in the U.S. Grover Cleveland feared the association with the history of the Haymarket Affair and endorsed the Labor Day we now know. But in more than 80 countries around the world, May 1 remains the true Labor Day.
We have seen this year once again that symbolism matters. We have seen right-wing governors not only attempting to suppress workers’ rights to organize, collectively bargain, and negotiate their wages and working conditions, but also taking down murals that celebrate the history of labor in this country.
We’ve also seen a resurgence in the labor movement at home—Wisconsin workers and allies 100,000 strong rallying day after day in their Capitol building and now gathering signatures and preparing to recall the state senators who voted to take away their rights. Beyond the symbolism of workers sleeping in sleeping bags in the Wisconsin winter outside the building, there’s been a resurgence of an awareness of history within the labor movement.
April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination as he rallied with sanitation workers in Memphis, saw “We Are One” rallies around the country as labor and civil rights groups banded together to fight the latest onslaught against union workers.
And this May Day, Chicago will see a remembrance of the Haymarket Affair. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka will march with Milwaukee’s workers and immigrant community in a solidarity march that celebrates not only Wisconsin’s leadership role in the fight against union-busting state politicians (who are, it should be noted, not all Republicans), but also acknowledges the 2006 May Day rally in which millions marched in support of undocumented workers and defeated anti-immigrant legislation.