Friday, April 27, 2007


May Day May Day!

It's getting that time of year: time for the original Labor Day:

Mass Amnesia Makes Americans Forget the Story Behind May Day
By Rudolph J. Vecoli
The Times Argus

Thursday 26 April 2007

May Day: The holiday of the workers. In days gone by, when men, women and children often worked 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week, May Day was an assertion on the part of wage-slaves that they were sovereign human beings with control over their own lives and destinies. They celebrated the day with marches of tens and hundreds of thousands throughout the world.

May Day was an expression of the international solidarity of the working class. "Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains," was not just a slogan. It was a battle cry in the war between classes. Their marches and rallies, with fiery speeches, impassioned poetry and stirring anthems, gave them a sense of their collective strength. It was an act of defiance of the combined forces of employers and public authorities. Often their gatherings were brutally attacked by police or thugs with clubs and guns.

Many of us have grandparents or great-grandparents who participated in these observances. Few of us acknowledge or are even aware of this inspiring part of our family histories. We Americans suffer from mass amnesia of the remarkable and some times glorious history of workers' struggles for liberty of expression and social justice. Who now remembers May Day?

Although not often taught in American history classes, May Day originated in the United States during the campaign for an eight-hour day. The Knights of Labor, the nascent American Federation of Labor and various anarchist groups designated May 1, 1886, for nationwide demonstrations for the eight-hour goal. An incident which occurred several days later in Chicago made this the beginning of a global workers' movement. Following a clash between strikers and police in which several workers were killed, a protest meeting was held in Haymarket Square.

When police attacked the gathering, a bomb was thrown, killing several officers. In the trial of anarchists (who were not accused of the bombing, but for advocating violence) which followed, eight were found guilty and four subsequently executed. These "Haymarket martyrs" quickly became revered heroes of labor movements throughout the world.

With this tragic episode in the class war in mind, the International Socialist Congress meeting in Paris in 1889 designated May 1, 1890, as an eight-hour holiday to be observed by workers in all countries. An increasingly conservative Samuel Gompers and AF of L had by the mid-1890s distanced themselves from May Day and embraced the legally sanctioned Labor Day, which was observed the first Monday in September. Coming from radical backgrounds, Finns, Slavs, East European Jews, Italians and other immigrants found their cherished May Day opposed not only by capitalists but often by American workers as well. Despite being denounced as "foreign born reds," they kept the torch of May Day idealism burning for another generation.

The response of the "bosses," political and economic, was twofold: to allay the anger of the workers, measures were taken to ameliorate the worst abuses of the capitalist system; while extreme repression was used to silence the most vocal and active labor advocates. The case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchist immigrants, electrocuted on Aug. 23, 1927, following a blatantly biased trial, is the most heinous example of the latter.

However, the ideal of May Day had already been shattered by the collision of international solidarity of the "proletariat" with the fervid nationalism resulting from World War I. Patriotism trumped class consciousness, and millions of workers killed each other in the name of the fatherland. Meanwhile, the Bolshevik Revolution which appeared to fulfill the vision of a collective republic turned out to be a Trojan horse in the socialist camp. The Leninist-Stalinist regime proved to be a ruthless dictatorship presiding over state capitalism. Among the earliest and most passionate opponents of Communist Russia were socialists and anarchists whose comrades were being liquidated by the Bolsheviks.

The aspiration for the unity of workers was shattered by these developments.

In the United States, the Great Depression of the 1930s did not usher in communism but the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which saved capitalism and laid the basis for a welfare state.

May Day was hijacked by the Soviet Union with its displays of military prowess in Red Square. The association of May Day with Soviet Communism has given it a bad name to this day.

In this age of globalization, when workers are pitted against each other, across oceans and continents, we have returned to conditions of pitiless exploitation of human beings. If greed ever was constrained by patriotism, it certainly is not today. The quest for profits knows no inhibitions by national ideologies or loyalties. Yes, we are involved in a class war, a war of oil companies, the military-industrial complex, the corrupted political institutions, against the workers and consumers.

We, the American working people, remain beguiled by symbols, the flag, the Fourth of July, the Thanksgiving turkey. It is time to revisit May Day in the spirit in which it was conceived over a hundred years ago. Only an international labor movement can hope to match the prowess of the amoral trans-national capitalist system. Freeing ourselves from the sordid history which stained the banner of May Day, we need to raise a cleansed, purified standard on which is emblazoned once again: "Workers of the World Unite!"

Rudolph J. Vecoli is professor emeritus of history and former director of the Immigration History Research Center University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Thanks for posting this.

I was asked to write two poems for KBOO's May Day celebration. I don't like to write poems on assignment, I like writing them because I feel them, but when I sat down, they just came out and I hope it does the BOO'S celebration justice.

It is odd that the labor movement is dying in this nation. Forming a union, having unemployment insurance, having work, are all "human rights." They are in the UN Declaration on Human Rights. No one seems to read these documents. The U.S. talks about others violating human rights! I read the UN Charter, I've read the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and I've read many other documents and the U.S. has violated them all many times over. The masses of the U.S. are easily put to sleep. Give them HDTV and 200 channels, big cars, and call it freedom, and they just fall asleep and don't do anything to fight back as those in power continue to kill others and steal their stuff for their own gain. Often, they are stealing the stuff of the masses as well, but they just continue to tell themselves this is the land of freedom and never question what freedom is.

It's all got to change.
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