“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 as well as rallies for immigrant workers. 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.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the founder and executive director of Voces de la Frontera, one of the groups organizing the Milwaukee rally, said:
“We want to send a message to corporate America, politicians and others that working people will not be divided,” she said.
Allison Kilkenny has more about rallies around the U.S., and the AFL-CIO has a liveblog and Twitter feed. If there’s no action in your neighborhood, help spread the word and stop dehumanizing immigrants with ColorLines’ “Stop the I-Word” campaign.
It’s about more than just symbolism, after all–it’s about organizing for right here, right now. Remembering the past, as Mother Jones said, is important, but the “fight like hell for the living” bit is the one that really matters. We want to build on history, not just nod our heads solemnly at it.
This year too, we learned once again the importance of international solidarity, as people around the world tuned in to Al-Jazeera English’s riveting live reporting from Egypt as that country peacefully threw off its dictator. Wisconsin protesters told reporters repeatedly that they were inspired by Tahrir Square to keep coming back each day to their own capitol, and Egyptians responded by sending messages of support (and pizza) to Madison. And just recently Egyptian activists joined U.S. activists here in New York to share advice and support–U.S. activists who were in turn inspired by the UK group UK Uncut to protest corporate power.
Egypt and Bahrain are two of the countries celebrating Labor day today even as they struggle for freedom.
Paul Mason of the BBC tweeted from Egypt’s May Day celebration today:
“Enjoy the revolution” says graffiti on Tahrir. They are. Tomorrow a Lab Party to be formed: doctors to vote on strike; new music evrywhere
In Moscow, 30,000 are expected to turn out–many to express dissatisfaction with their government as well as support for workers. In Turkey, 200,000 hit the streets in the largest rally since 1977, and in South Korea, 50,000 rallied. China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Spain, and Hong Kong also saw marches and actions.
In the UK, despite the Conservative government’s wishes to move the holiday away from a day associated with workers, May Day coincided with the royal wedding and thus got even more police overreaction than usual–at least in Brighton.
Internet organizing has gotten a lot of attention of late, particularly in relation to Egypt (and before that Iran), but May Day is a day to remember the importance of getting out in the streets. Facebook and Twitter can only take you so far.
We need our holidays to mark the past, to look to the future, and to fight for the rights of all. As Emma Goldman said:
“I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”