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Books and movies to celebrate May Day
The rich history of U.S. workers' struggle

By Donny Schraffenberger and Elizabeth Schulte | May 3, 2002 | Page 9

MAY 1 is May Day, the international workers' holiday. Although it's not an official holiday here, May Day began in the U.S. with workers' inspiring battle for the eight-hour workday in the late 1880s. This struggle showed workers' courage to fight back, and just how much violence that the U.S. ruling class was willing to use to stop them.

The memory of the executed labor leaders, the Haymarket Martyrs, would live on to inspire working-class fighters throughout the world. It's a good time to honor this fighting tradition by checking out some books and movies that tell the stories of workers' struggle.

A very good book is Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs. It is the account of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes that galvanized the nation. Dobbs became a socialist through his participation in the events. His book is chock-full of debates and tactics and strategies to counter the ruthlessness of the bosses' organizations.

Robin Kelley's Hammer and Hoe is about Communist Party members organizing workers and the poor in the Deep South in the segregated 1930s. It is an inspiring account of mostly Black workers and sharecroppers fighting back under the brutal conditions of American apartheid. It also recounts the tragic betrayal of the Communist Party abandoning their Black comrades for an alliance with the Democratic Party, the party of the Klan and white power in the South.

Labor's Giant Step by Art Preis gives an account of the first 20 years of the CIO. Not only does it deal with the turbulent thirties, it exposes the mainstream lie that workers didn't strike during the "good war" of the Second World War. However, it's written by a member of the American Socialist Workers Party, who in combating the Stalinist distortion of labor history, bends the stick too much in the other direction, downplaying contributions by Communist Party members.

For an easily readable account of the American labor struggle, Labor's Untold Story is a good place to start. It will inspire you, but read it with a critical eye--especially the chapters on the 1930s and '40s--because it is written sympathetic to the Communist Party twists and turns.

Detroit: I Do Mind Dying is the stirring account of Black workers in the late 1960s and early '70s taking on the auto bosses and the racism of their own United Auto Workers (UAW) union. This book will get you thinking about the need for revolutionary politics in the workplace. It also brings up the question of Black separatism, and why the working class needs Black and white unity to win.

American Labor Struggles 1877-1934 by Samuel Yellen was written in 1936 about 10 historic confrontations between workers and the bosses. The story of the Haymarket Mayrtrs and the fight for the eight-hour day is chronicled here, as well as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

Good novels to read include John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, a stirring account of the effect of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and the eventual fight back by those being trampled down. Also, his lesser known In Dubious Battle is a story of organizing migrant workers in California.

Obviously, Hollywood has little interest in making movies about class struggle--but there are a few. One of the best is John Sayles' 1987 movie Matewan about the 1920 West Virginia coal miners' fight to unionize. Its depiction of workers breaking down racist divisions during the struggle is terrific.

For a movie that's as far away from Hollywood as you get, see the 1953 movie Salt of the Earth. This movie--made by blacklisted filmmakers and later suppressed by the Hollywood establishment--tells the story of Mexican American workers taking on the mine bosses in New Mexico. It's not only antiracist, but it also takes a powerful stand against the idea that a "woman's place is in the home." Strikers and their families play almost all of the parts in the film.

Here are also a few suggested documentaries that capture the voices of class fighters from the past. The 1975 documentary Union Maids interviews Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki and Sylvia Woods who recall their lives as women workers and union organizers in Chicago in the 1930s. And With Babies and Banners is an excellent documentary about the brave work of the Women's Emergency Brigade in the UAW's 1937 sit-down strike against General Motors.

These books and movies provide us with the usually untold stories of working-class struggles in the U.S.--and teach us important lessons for battles to come.

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