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 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.”

Sarah Jaffe is web ninja at GRITtv, a writer and rabblerouser. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr.

This entry was posted in Class, Holidays & Celebrations, Labor and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Happy May Day!

  1. Yonmei says:

    Johann Hari links the RW to USUncut in this interview.

  2. Kristen J. says:

    Its great to hear the labor movement rallies. M & I planned to be at the Phoenix Rising Rally today, but I’m stuck in bed with bronchitis. The rally doesn’t start until 1:30, so anyone else who is in the area…

    http://maydayunited.org/actions/list-of-events/arizona/

    As an aside, May 1 is also Lei Day in Hawaii…a celebration of kindness and inclusivity.

  3. Yonmei says:

    I was thinking, also, sadly, that one of the things I will now always associate the end of April 2011 with, isn’t the expensive travesty for which people were arrested, it’s Joanna Russ’s death.

    I first read The Female Man when I was 17. For 7th February 1994, the 25th anniversary of the date on which Joanna says

    As I have said before, I (not the one above, please) had an experience on the seventh of February last,
    nineteen-sixty-nine.
    I turned into a man.
    I had been a man before, but only briefly and in a crowd.
    You would not have noticed anything, had you been there.

    I sent 25 feminist postcards to feminist SF fan friends.

    She was an amazing writer, a dancer on the sea of words, one of the great creators. She lived not by writing but by teaching, and wrote less as a result: she said again and again that you keep yourself honest as a writer by not depending on writing to earn your living. She was scarily intelligent, fearsomely well-read, wonderfully funny.

    Celebrate the dead and fight like hell for the living.

  4. The government wants to break up unions for the same reason it tries to divide us in other ways: women vs. men, black vs. white, immigrant vs. native-born. When people stand together for justice and fair treatment, they have a chance to do amazing things like in Egypt (where they have less inequality than here in America).

    We need to stand together for what’s right. Supporting labor is one way to do it.

  5. kloncke says:

    Hell yeah! Happy May Day y’all.

    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.

    Thanks for saying this: hella important! This year also saw a prison strike in Georgia, an important reminder of the “industrial complex” part of Prison-Industrial Complex, and a prime example of the overlap between labor and incarceration. We need to be able to adjust to changing conditions of capital and labor in order to fight back with effective means now, not just using early-20th-century union history as some sort of transhistorical playbook. As US unions have become megabusinesses unto themselves (with many paid union organizers having to sign a no-strike clause in their own contract!), and leadership becoming divorced from the rank-and-file, not to mention the special challenges of organizing undocumented workers, it’s imperative that we engage with present conditions, as they are now.

  6. russ W says:

    A beautiful article! Countries around the world celebrate May Day which arose partly as a commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1884 on May 4th. Shamefully, the US purposely chose September for Labor Day to avoid any connection to Haymarket. Today, 200,000 people paraded in Turkey to celebrate May Day. Thank you, Turkey, you are rapidly becoming one of the most admired Nations in the world.

  7. russ W says:

    A beautiful article! Countries around the world celebrate May Day which arose partly as a commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1884 on May 4th. Shamefully, the US purposely chose September for Labor Day to avoid any connection to Haymarket. Today, 200,000 people paraded in Turkey to celebrate May Day. Thank you, Turkey, you are rapidly becoming one of the most admired Nations in the world.

  8. Pingback: Happy May Day « Mystical Worlds

  9. oldlady says:

    This is such an important post. Should be read by many more than will read it.

  10. Natalia says:

    According to the so-called yellow press, the highlight of today’s march of the Communist Party of Russia in Moscow was when people with rainbow flags randomly joined in. The riot police showed uncommon restraint and “politely asked” asked the GLBT activists to disengage, before a fight broke out. Seems rather sad, because the Communist Party (the mainstream branch) and Moscow’s gay rights activists do have a lot of stuff in common, especially wherein issues such as workplace discrimination are concerned.

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  12. I was fortunate enough to attend the rededication ceremony in Chicago, at the same cemetery where my grandparents (who were active members of the US Communist party during their lives) are buried a few feet away from Emma Goldman. It was a really cool experience, and I’ve written up some thoughts (and shared some pictures) over at my blog.

  13. haley says:

    Happy Mayday!

  14. Macha says:

    Happy May Day indeed! A celebration of life and rebirth – which I think fits nicely with the revolutions we’re seeing in the workers’ movements.

  15. Aaron W. says:

    On the subject of May Day, I am fond of the following passage from the Illuminatus! Trillogy:

    As the earth turned on its axis and dawn reached city after city, hamlet after hamlet, farm after farm, mountain and valley after mountain and valley, it became obvious that May 1 would be bright and sunny almost everywhere.
    […]
    In Paris the Communists under the Red banner and the anarchists under the Black were preparing for the International Labor Solidarity Day, at which the usual factionalism and sectarianism would once again demonstrate the absolute lack of international labor solidarity. And in London, Berlin, a thousand cites, the Red and the Black would wave and the tongues of their partisans would wag, and the age-old longing for a classless society would once again manifest itself; while, in the same cites, an older name and an older purpose for that day would be commemorated in convent after convent and school after school where verses (far older than the name of Christianity) were sung to the Mother of God:
    Queen of the Angels
    Queen of the May

    […]
    But everywhere, in Asia and Africa as in Europe and the Americas, the members of the Oldest Religion were returning from their festivals, murmuring “Blessed be” as they parted, secure in their knowledge that the Mother of God was indeed still alive and had visited them at midnight, whether they knew her as Dian, Dan, Tan, Tana, Shakti, or even Erzulie.
    Queen of the Angels
    Queen of the May

    -Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson The Illuminatus! Trilogy Dell Trade Paperback: New York, 1988, page 657-658

    I think it speaks beautifully to the unity underlying our divisions, and to the need to join together to fight for what really are, for most of us, common goals. It also reminds me that, when we fall short, we have a chance to pick ourselves up and try again.

    Blessed be and happy May Day to all.

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