The phone call from Jim Miller, a vice-president of the San Diego City College faculty union, came early in 2018. Would I be interested in making a presentation to students and faculty about the history of May Day on May 1?
Why, yes, I would be. I knew from decades of teaching labor history to City College of San Francisco students that the story behind International Workers Day—officially celebrated in dozens of countries across the world, but not in the country in which it originated—remained largely unknown, even as a modest revival of interest in the holiday among socialists and union activists had been growing for the past several years.
The San Diego talk went well. So, I tinkered with that lecture/slideshow each year, improving and presenting it to unions and DSA chapters, until COVID-19 put a halt to in-person events—at which point I decided to expand it into a video that could be used anytime anywhere.
The result, a half-hour documentary called We Mean to Make Things Over (after a lyric from the nineteenth-century “Eight Hour Song”) will have its Zoom premiere on April 30 and in person at a number of California venues in the latter half of April. Beginning on May 1 it will be made available on the video’s website for free use by DSA chapters.
Appropriately enough, given its topic, the premiere itself has become a nexus of labor and socialist movement cooperation.
Making We Mean to Make Things Over
I have had the great fortune to work with a group of artists and craftspeople who are spectacularly good at what they do, several of whom are fellow DSA members. One is East Bay artist Jos Sances, who provided superb scratchboard drawings (see accompanying artwork). Los Angeles animator and California DSA state council member Paul Zappia put Jos’s drawings and other archival illustrations and photos into creative motion.
The multi-talented Elise Bryant, who directs the Labor Heritage Foundation and serves as national president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, sang the “Eight Hour Song,” supported by San Francisco’s Rockin’ Solidarity Labor Chorus and jazz combo The 300 Club. New York-based Sokio composed original music. And longtime East Bay DSA videomaker and actor Sophie Becker recorded the voiceover narration just before she moved to New York.
These diverse contributions were skillfully stitched together by award-winning documentarian-turned-editor Rick Tejada-Flores. Tejada-Flores began his career as a filmmaker for the United Farm Workers in the 1970s. He was present, camera in hand, at the birth of the now-famous “Si se puede” slogan. He went on to co-direct The Fight in the Fields in the 1990s, among a dozen nationally distributed PBS feature films.
With the exception of Becker’s voiceover work, which was paid at union scale, everyone donated their labor to the project. Animator Paul Zappia noted, “I feel very lucky to have been a part of this project, especially at an exciting time when workers around the country are beginning to understand their power and their right to determine their own livelihoods. The history of these movements is the exact history everyone should be taught across the country—and I hope that those watching can gain a new or renewed sense of hope for the future we have ahead.”
The funding for the voiceover and the recording studio rental was generously donated by the California Federation of Teachers’ Labor and Climate Justice Education Committee, members of which are also working on a study guide to accompany the video.
Timing couldn’t have been better
In a moment when celebrating May Day has been making a comeback and DSA has become the largest U.S. socialist movement since the 1940s, the labor movement is showing renewed signs of life as well. The Amazon breakthrough win in Staten Island, Starbucks cracking open, and cultural institutions like museums and newspapers going union—all are signaling a new potential for working-class awareness of its power.
Last year on May Day an unprecedented level of cooperation between the official labor movement and DSA—unthinkable for decades during the Cold War and its long hangover—resulted in local demonstrations across the country demanding labor law reform: the PRO Act.
Labor/DSA cooperation has only become stronger since last year. Joining the trend, a number of in-person and Zoom screenings of We Mean to Make Things Over are taking place in the two weeks prior to May Day, supported by labor and DSA chapters together:
- At UC Berkeley, the Center for Labor Research and Education hosted a screening on April 20, co-sponsored with the campus YDSA and the lecturers’ union, UC-AFT. Twenty of Jos Sances’s illustrations for the video were enlarged, framed, and hung on the walls of the conference room. The screening doubled as a gallery opening. Among the dozens of audience members were faculty who pledged to show the video in their classes.
- In Sacramento, the local DSA chapter and the Central Labor Council are co-hosting the screening on April 29 at local activist hangout Organize Sacramento, with the Council providing drinks and desserts. Organizers of the May Day march two days later will speak on the issues behind the march, including the demand to release immigrant detainees held by ICE. The march will take a stop at the detention facility.
- On April 30, the Zoom premiere run by East Bay DSA will include, in addition to the screening, a rundown by representatives from several labor councils around California of their planned May Day events, so that viewers can learn where to march locally and get a sense of the scope of actions around the state.