Building on May Day traditions today

April 26, 2012

With Occupy, labor, immigrant rights and other activists planning protests on May 1, Shaun Harkin recounts the history of International Workers Day and its lessons.

ON MAY 1, workers across the globe will demonstrate, attend meetings and go on strike in celebration of International Workers Day, a working-class holiday with origins in the U.S. more than a century ago.

The working-class resistance celebrated on May Day isn't just something from the pages of history, however. Since the global economic crisis struck in 2008, mass workers' demonstrations, workplace occupations and general strikes have reappeared in countries around the world as part of the struggle against austerity measures imposed by governments everywhere.

With class inequality reaching new heights and shaping politics in the U.S. and internationally, a new generation is discovering the importance of May Day and embracing its message of militant working-class struggle and international solidarity.

This is the context for demonstrations planned for May 1 this year, organized by Occupy movement activists, along with labor unions, immigrant rights activists and antiwar organizations. Whatever the size and character of these protests, they represent an effort to connect activists in movements today with the rich traditions of working-class struggle in the U.S.--with the goal of building a left alternative in a world dominated by the 1 percent.

Occupy and labor activists joined in a day of solidarity and protest in Chicago in November
Occupy and labor activists joined in a day of solidarity and protest in Chicago in November

THE FIRST May Day was born in an earlier struggle against inequality and suffering caused by a capitalist system driven by the pursuit of profit above anything else.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions--the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor--set May 1, 1886, as the day that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor." On May 1 itself, at least 190,000 workers went on strike for the eight-hour day--an additional 150,000 won the demand just by threatening to strike.

Demonstrations on the first day of the strike were huge--80,000 people marched down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, where the labor movement was strongest. Some 10,000 marched in New York City and 11,000 in Detroit.

Today, the first May Day is remembered for what happened afterwards. When a bomb exploded among police at a May 4 labor rally at Chicago's Haymarket Square, the city's ruling class went on the offensive, rounding up the leaders of the workers' movement and indicting them for conspiracy, even though none were present when the explosion took place.

State's Attorney Julius Grinnell's summation to the jury captured the mood of retaliation among Chicago's elite:

Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they are leaders. They are no more guilty than those thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury: convict these men, make examples of them, hang them you save our institutions, our society.

The Haymarket Eight were railroaded to the gallows by a jury of managers, police relatives and businessmen. Four working-class leaders were hung and another committed suicide in his cell to cheat the hangman. However, in 1893, Illinois Gov. Peter Altgeld pardoned the three surviving members of the Haymarket Eight and criticized their trial as a travesty of justice.

In 1889, the newly formed Second International network of socialist organizations resolved at its Paris congress to join workers in the U.S. in striking and demonstrating for the eight-hour day across the world. This launched the international May Day tradition.

But in the U.S. unions and working-class organizations were encouraged to abandon May Day in favor of Labor Day--a September holiday that had begun before 1886, but was promoted afterwards as a "national celebration of labor," explicitly in opposition to International Workers Day's message of working-class militancy. In 1894, Labor Day was made an official national holiday.

However, a number of left-wing organizations and unions continued the May Day tradition in the U.S. In 1907, the Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs argued in the New York Worker: "This is the first and only International Labor Day. It belongs to the working-class and is dedicated to the revolution."

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905 by socialists, anarcho-syndicalists and militant trade unionists, declared that it would celebrate May Day annually. On the eve of May Day in 1907, the IWW's Industrial Union Bulletin declared:

Labor Day has completely lost its class character. The very fact that "Labor Day" was legally, formally and officially established by the capitalist class itself, through its organized government, took the "starch" out of it: destroyed its class character...The first of May has not been disgraced, contaminated and blasphemed by capital's official sanction and approval, as has Labor Day. The capitalist class can never be a friend of May Day; it will ever be its enemy.

Though smaller in scale, May Day continued to be a reference point for working-class militants in the U.S. And in the period before and during the First World War, its significance grew as a day of marking international working-class solidarity in opposition to militarism and imperialist war.

Nevertheless, May Day was ultimately marginalized in the U.S.--not only as a result of the opposition of the U.S. ruling class that feared the holiday's militant message, but because of conservative union leaders who also resisted an annual demonstration that honored union radicals and the memory of a general strike.

For decades, May Day was known to most Americans as a holiday celebrated in other countries, not in the U.S. That changed in 2006, when International Workers' Day was the date for a massive mobilization by immigrant workers and their supporters. The May 1 day of action was sparked by legislation passed months earlier in the U.S. House that essentially criminalized the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S., along with anyone who aided them.

A wave of demonstrations before May Day had begun in Chicago and rolled across the country, with unprecedented turnouts. May 1 was organized around the theme of "A Day Without Immigrants," and across the country, immigrant workers, union and nonunion, took unofficial strike action.

As journalist Juan Gonzalez writes in the newly republished Harvest of Empire, "Between March and May of 2006, an estimated 3 to 5 million people, most of them Latinos, filled the downtown streets of some 160 towns and cities in the largest series of mass demonstrations the nation had ever seen." The anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner bill was doomed.

Though immigrant rights groups led the organizing for May Day, the labor movement played an important role in supporting the mobilization. Unions representing immigrant workers were able in some instances to force companies to negotiate half-days or full days off for workers to participate.

This support was an important step for organized labor, which in 2000 reversed its longstanding opposition to legalization and took a position in favor of amnesty for the undocumented. In 2004, trade unions had allied with immigrant rights organizations and supporters to organize the "Immigrant Freedom Rides" across the U.S.

TODAY, IN the wake of the upsurge of the Occupy movement last fall--with its central focus on worsening inequality in a society dominated by the 1 percent--many activists are rightly looking to May Day as an important occasion for mobilization. But there is a debate about what kind of mobilization and what is possible.

Some local Occupy groups are following a call that originated on the West Coast for a May Day general strike. At one level, this shows how the Occupy movement has both fired the imagination of activists and also raised the question of the strategic position of workers, with their social power to paralyze the economy by striking. However, unlike in 1886 and even 2006, the calls for a general strike this year are mostly disconnected from working-class organization and concrete demands.

In Chicago, the general strike call has recently become counterposed to a march and rally planned months before by Occupy activists, along with labor, immigrants rights, community and faith-based groups. The plans for a mere protest on May Day have been criticized as a boring "cattle march" that fails to escalate the struggle against the 1 percent.

The organizers of the May Day rally and march decided on this strategy because the general mood beyond the small group of activists involved in Occupy activities on a regular basis wasn't for anything as ambitious as a general strike--unlike 2006, when many immigrant workers self-organized for the "Day Without Immigrants." In fact, calling for a general strike without the involvement of organizations that would be central to such an action makes it more difficult to involve broader forces in May Day activities.

A general strike has to be called and organized by those who have the power to make it both a strike and general.

This isn't to say that activists shouldn't organize to try to win unions to taking strike action. Very often, rank-and-file workers must campaign inside their unions to pressure a cautious or conservative leadership to prepare for and call a strike. There's also a tradition of unionized workers organizing "wildcat" strikes without the official sanction of national union leaderships. But this is very different from calling a strike without the direct participation of workers, unionized or not.

But for many of those who support the general strike call, this is exactly the point. They believe activists need to bypass "conservative unions and their leaders" because they are a "brake" on working-class struggle.

There are numerous problems and misunderstandings with this view. For one, many of the workers dismissed as conservative had to fight to win union representation and to get a contract enforced. Union members also tend to have a better grasp of their collective power precisely because they are organized--in contrast to another mistaken view that unorganized workers are more radical because they don't enjoy the "privileges" union workers do.

The call for the most radical action possible--for a general strike, to be accomplished by a minority of activists if "conservative" workers can't or won't do it themselves--doesn't always move a struggle forward. In fact, it often accomplishes the opposite.

For example, imagine if three workers in a workplace of 1,000 decided to call a strike, but hadn't done the work to convince others to do it with them, and didn't recognize that other workers weren't ready for this kind of activity. If the three workers went ahead with their "strike," they would end up having to accuse their co-workers of being scabs, production would not be shut down, and the three would likely be fired, and certainly alienated from those who they ought to be trying to influence and encourage.

It's also the case that workers in non-unionized workplaces can and will organize strikes to win improvements in their conditions and to beat back attacks by their employer. However, again, this has to be organized by the workers themselves, with support and solidarity from other unions and activists.

For example, in July 2007, 100 mostly Latino workers at the Cygnus plant on Chicago's far South Side struck for two weeks to stop terminations based on verification of their immigration status--even though the workers didn't have the protection of the union. However, the strike came as the initiative of the workers themselves and required the support of immigrant rights activists and unionists to win. The workers decided to risk going on strike without any formal protection because they believed it was the only way they could win their demands and protect their jobs.

IN 1886 and in 2006, one key to the success of the mass strikes and demonstrations in those years was the fight over specific demands. In 1886, the demand was for the eight-hour day. In 2006, it was to stop the criminalization of 12 million undocumented workers. Mass numbers of workers, whether organized previously or not, mobilized and acted in pursuit of a particular demand.

A general strike call disconnected not only from the social forces needed to stop production but from specific demands that are popular with wide numbers of workers is bound to be nothing close to a general strike. Right now, there isn't one central demand that could galvanize strike action on May Day. This doesn't mean there never will be such a demand--but it won't come about because a small group of people promote a slogan.

To some extent, the call for a general strike this year comes from forces within the Occupy movement that have concluded that workplace struggles are less important because of the reorganization of capitalism, technology and the financialization of the economy.

Therefore, the call for a "general strike" is equated with any kind of activity that challenges authority--from boycotting classes, to refusing to shop or consume, to not driving or participating in other everyday activities, to attempting to create havoc with a small band of conspirators.

Again, this misses the importance of the social power of workers and their organizations--something that the whole history of May Day, including its most recent reappearance in the U.S., is testament to. There is an immense difference in a strike that shuts down a company's operations, and not shopping or driving for one day. Understanding the social power of the working class is the first step in developing a strategy to change society.

Throughout the history of workers' movement, there has always been a debate about the character of May Day actions. More conservative union leaders and politicians who claim to speak for labor have argued that May 1 should be a celebration at most.

Others have maintained--even when the tradition of International Workers Day was marginalized in the U.S.--that May Day should be a day to celebrate the militant traditions of working-class action. At the same time, however, this doesn't mean that those who believe workers can only change society through their ability to withhold their labor should always call for a strike on May Day.

Each continent, country and region has different May Day traditions based on the relative strength of the political organization of the working class and the size and power of unions. Activists have to decide what strategies and tactics they should pursue that will increase the capacity of the working class to struggle and to prepare it for future battles.

If activists in Chicago and elsewhere can organize meetings and actions on May Day that highlight the grotesque inequalities of U.S. society and the need to challenge them; that deepen the ties between Occupy activists, unionists, immigrant rights supporters and more; and that build the unity and confidence of all the movements for change; then we will have honored the traditions of International Workers Day from their founding in this country a century and a quarter ago.

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