Building solidarity, not walls, on May Day

May 1, 2017

This year's demonstrations and strikes on May Day can be a step toward building the networks we need resist Donald Trump's attack on immigrants and workers.

ON MAY 1, 1886, hundreds of thousands of American workers went on one of the largest strikes the world had seen to that point in order to demand an eight-hour workday.

Some of the strike leaders had fought 20 years earlier in the Civil War that ended slavery. They saw the eight-hour day as the next step in the fight for a world in which those who create society's wealth are able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, as they sang in the "Eight Hour Song":

We want to feel the sunshine; we want to smell the flowers;

We're sure that God has willed it, and we mean to have eight hours.

We're summoning our forces from shipyard, shop and mill:

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.

Newspapers denounced these strike leaders as criminal agitators and warned that the workers--many of whom were European immigrants--were dangerous foreigners polluting native soil with their un-American socialist ideas.

In Chicago, where the strike was biggest, cops attacked a protest outside the McCormick factory, killing two workers. At a protest rally held the following night at Haymarket Square, a bomb was thrown--by who has always been in dispute--behind police lines, killing seven cops.

On the march in Milwaukee against Trump's immigrant-bashing
On the march in Milwaukee against Trump's immigrant-bashing (Joe Brusky)

In the frenzied aftermath, eight leaders of the eight-hour movement were rounded up and put on trial, even though most hadn't even been at the Haymarket rally. Despite the fact that the prosecutor didn't even try to prove the defendants were guilty of the actual bombing, all eight were convicted and four were executed a year later.

Socialists and unions across the world protested this gross injustice, and from that point on, May 1 became an international working class holiday to honor the "Haymarket Martyrs" of Chicago.

During coming generations, the working class movement that was just beginning back in 1886 would grow and win some major victories--if never the original demand of the 1886 strike that the potential of American democracy should be fulfilled by giving true equality to the majority class that does most of the work.

OVER MOST of the 20th century, unions led a difficult but successful fight to improve living standards for most workers: wages went up, hours went down, and laws were passed (if unevenly enforced) against such threats as unsafe working conditions and sexual harassment.

But along the way, the official labor movement--around the world, but especially in the U.S.--lost the radical socialist vision that had given the movement its start and trained its most dedicated and farsighted organizers.

This has left our side disarmed in the face of the relentless efforts of Corporate America to reverse working class gains in recent decades, which has, in some ways, brought us back to 1880s-style conditions. Few workers today have the right to due process on the job, and nobody seems to work an eight-hour day anymore.

Another similarity between now and the days of the first May Day is the central place of immigrants in U.S. society and especially the working class.

People born in another country make up almost 17 percent of the U.S. workforce--almost as high as at the time of the Haymarket martyrs. Like then and throughout this country's history, it is immigrant workers who often point the way forward for the entire American working class.

Ten years before Bernie Sanders put socialism back on the map, it was the enormous "Day Without Immigrants" strike in 2006 that re-established May 1 as a day of protest in the U.S. after its long disappearance during the decades of smothering anti-communism.

That strike was part of a movement that rose up in massive numbers against Republican legislation that would have criminalized all 11 million of the undocumented. The movement also became one of the main forces that helped elect Barack Obama--who would go on to utterly betray his immigrant supporters over the next eight years.

Obama de-prioritized passing immigration legislation during his first two years in office while he had a Democratic-controlled Congress. Even when Republicans had congressional power, Obama could have used his executive authority--the way Trump is now--to reduce deportations. Instead, he increased them to the highest levels of any president in history.

Finally, and in what might turn out to be his most unforgiveable offense, Obama refused to sign executive orders granting legalization in his final months--after Trump was elected, and it was clear how much danger was facing undocumented immigrants and their loved ones.

NOW A grossly unjust immigration system is in the hands of open racists like Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Trump team dreams of terrifying almost every immigrant in this country: from the young "Dreamers"; to the rest of the 11 million undocumented immigrants; to the many green card holders who might be vulnerable because they've been caught up at one point in the dragnet of the criminal injustice system.

In contrast to Obama officials who tried to maintain support among immigrant communities by dubiously claiming they were deporting "felons, not families," the new administration has made it clear that it considers all undocumented immigrants to be subject to expulsion from the U.S.

During Trump's first months in office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been unleashed to make high-profile arrests in the most outrageous and cruel places--at courthouses where immigrants were applying for green cards or seeking orders of protection from abusive partners; in cars as they dropped children off at school; on their way home from speaking at immigration rallies.

This is guaranteed to send waves of fear through immigrant communities that the modern-day slave catchers might turn up anywhere.

Many media commentators have noted that the raids are meant to rally support among working class and middle class voters who went for Trump's populist appeal and are now watching his administration becoming swallowed up by Goldman Sachs alumni.

But we should also be clear that Trump's anti-immigrant policies are also designed to screw native-born workers by creating a more frightened and therefore more exploitable immigrant workforce that employers can use to drive down wages and working conditions for all.

This is one aspect of capitalism that hasn't changed a bit since 1886: Anti-immigrant politics are about dividing the working class to make us all weaker.

That's why it's so important today--and in the coming weeks and months--for all working people to come out and protest to show that we will stand with and for our immigrant neighbors, co-workers, friends and family.

TRUMP'S WAVE of deportations has created a lot of fear, but we've also seen a widespread desire to stand against him, from the enormous Women's March after his inauguration and the uprising at the airports that helped to stop his attempted ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries to the April protests against climate change.

But there is a big gap between the sentiment to fight Trump's anti-immigrant policies and the organization that exists on the ground to stop the deportations happening every day in our communities. Many Democratic mayors have vowed to make their cities a "sanctuary" for immigrants, but they haven't done anything to stop ICE agents--and haven't indicated any plans to do so.

Many immigrant advocacy organizations have been so overwhelmed by people seeking their help--and often by their staff being targeted by ICE--that they haven't been able to organize broad coalitions that can involve unaffiliated people who want to stand against deportations can join.

One of the key tasks in the coming months is to build neighborhood and citywide networks that can publicize and respond to immigrant raids, both to try to prevent deportations today and to strengthen our side in the coming months and years by building solidarity and trust between immigrants and those born in the U.S.

In many places across the country, this work is only beginning, but it's a necessary step in helping to turn widespread pro-immigrant sentiment into concrete organization that can directly challenge Trump--and rebuild a fighting labor movement in the country that gave the workers of the world the very first May Day.

Further Reading

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