May Day: Born in the USA

Still part of the fight for economic and social justice
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Over 1,000,000 people march in support of immigrants’ rights - May 1, 2006, Los Angeles. Photo by David Bacon.  http://dbacon.igc.org

For generations, May Day, the International Workers Day celebrated by working people in more than 200 countries, was ignored in the United States, the country of its origin. In fact, the annual holiday is as American as cherry pie, commemorating as it does the 1886 nationwide general strike in which U.S. trade unionists — largely foreign-born — walked off the job in support of an eight-hour workday.

This year’s observance marks the 127th anniversary of that campaign to humanize the workday — and of the tragedy at Chicago’s Haymarket Square that followed three days later.

Back in 1886, when the typical work day was 10, 12 or even 14 hours long and joblessness was rife, the demand for a work day limited to eight hours at decent wages was viewed as dangerously radical. The eight-hour-day movement was spearheaded by two organizations, the craft-dominated Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor) and the Knights of Labor.

An 1884 proclamation from the Federation pledged that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” A circular of the time calling for a massive work stoppage on that date read, “Lay down your tools, cease your labor, close the factories, mills and mines” and demand “eight hours of work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will.” Nationwide, anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 workers — the number is in dispute — answered the call, though the epicenter of the strike effort was indisputably Chicago.

University of Massachusetts-Boston historian James Green, whose 2006 book Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America is both indispensible and gripping reading, wrote that “What happened on May 1, 1886 was more than a general strike; it was a ‘populist moment’ when working people believed they could destroy plutocracy, redeem democracy and then create a new ‘cooperative commonwealth.’” It was not to be; at least not yet.

Today’s May 1 observance is also associated with Chicago’s infamous May 4 Haymarket Square tragedy that same year. Thousands of labor activists had gathered in the square that evening to protest law-enforcement attacks on the strikers. When the peaceful rally was winding down, riot police marched into the crowd, demanding that everyone disperse. An unknown assailant tossed a homemade bomb at the line of police, killing one. In the chaos that ensued, at least a dozen people were killed, including six more police officers, all from gunshot-related wounds. Eight of the movement’s leaders, two of whom were not even present at the rally, were charged with murder and conspiracy.

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Socialists rally in New York’s Union Square.  May Day, 1912. Socialist Party membership was about 110,000.

The prejudicial trial took place in a hothouse atmosphere. Typical was the Chicago Tribune’s demand for the deportation of immigrants it labeled “ungrateful hyenas” and “foreign savages who might come to America with their dynamite bombs and anarchic purposes.” The prosecution offered no evidence for its contention that the defendants plotted to target police at the demonstration; it argued simply that the remarks of the rally speakers constituted incitement to violence. All eight were found guilty of murder and four of the eight were eventually hanged. Authorities used the incident to launch a massive witch hunt and arrest hundreds of labor leaders, which put a halt to the eight-hour campaign for years.

The eight-hour day finally became a reality only in 1938, when the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act made it a legal day’s work throughout the nation.

May 1 was adopted as a holiday internationally in 1890 and is even a national holiday in more than 80 countries, though not in the United States. In 1921, following a postwar Red Scare and the forced deportation of thousands of foreign-born workers — virtually all Southern and Eastern Europeans — May Day was named “Americanization Day” as a slap at all foreign-born workers, then seen as dangerous radicals. During the Cold War, Congress sought to reclaim May 1 from “red sympathizers” by proclaiming it Loyalty Day, a day to reaffirm loyalty to the United States. The association of May 1 with communism was abetted by the Soviet Union, which used the date for parading military hardware and rattling sabers.

Despite these efforts to sanitize May Day and make it a holiday celebrating national and ruling elite interests as opposed to working class and common people’s needs and dreams, May Day  for the most part maintained its traditional focus, especially in Europe and Latin America, where socialist and labor parties of various hues put forward a variety of reform and radical demands. In some Latin American countries, May Day is even used by their governments to announce wage increases.  

May 1 was revived as a day to mark worker rights in the United States in 2006, when immigrant workers participated in giant demonstrations on that day in New York and Los Angeles in their fight for immigration reform and a path to citizenship. In 2012, much of the Occupy movement added its support and presence as well.

Uniting the twin fights for worker and immigrant rights that trace back to the birth of May Day, rally participants this year will protest a variety of inequities, from union busting and attacks on public and private-sector workers, long-term unemployment, outsourcing and the shift of jobs overseas, the soaring cost of higher education and the increasing precarious conditions for even the college-educated, to anti-immigrant attacks and mass deportations and the need for  equitable legislation establishing a path to citizenship.

Things you can do. Join with DSA in our Immigrants’ Rights campaign. http://www.dsausa.org/current_campaigns Participate in a May Day/ labor celebration in your area.

Michael Hirsch, a longtime union activist and DSA member, is a New York-based labor and political writer. An earlier version of this article appeared on Talking Union, DSA’s labor blog, on May 2, 2011.

Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 46 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

Instructor:

  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 68 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.