FOR MANY Americans, "May Day" brings to mind images of phalanxes of Soviet soldiers goose-stepping through Red Square behind massive tanks, while millions obediently cheer (sort of like July 4). For other people, "May Day" is a pagan holiday, Beltane, more loved for maypoles or other fertility rituals than for political struggles.
But May Day, the political version, is an American holiday. On that day— May 1, 1886—340,000 workers launched a series of general strikes in Chicago and other Midwestern cities for the eight-hour workday. The strike took on particular significance when, two days later, police attacked striking workers at the McCormick Reaper plant, on Chicago's south side. Four workers were killed and over 200 injured. And the following day, May 4, at a demonstration to protest the police riot, a bomb went off at Haymarket Square—the infamous "Haymarket Massacre" that led to death sentences for eight anarchists convicted, with no evidence at all, for conspiracy to commit murder.
Three of the anarchists were pardoned before their deaths, the other five posthumously. May Day became a rallying cry for the right of workers to organize in general and for the eight-hour day in particular. By the end of the decade, it was celebrated all over the world.
It still is— except, ironically, in the land of the holiday's birth. And so, last Wednesday, a million people turned out in the streets of France; protesters battled police in Germany (as usual), the Philippines, and Australia; and workers all over the world rallied and marched and agitated for their own rights, for democracy, and to remember.
"In Latin America," says Ricardo Ortega of the Northwest Labor Employment and Law Office (LELO), "we celebrate May Day in our countries to recognize the history of the people assassinated in Chicago and the struggle for the eight-hour day." A struggle that, here and everywhere, we've been losing of late.
Ortega was one of the main organizers behind Seattle's May Day march last week; 600 immigrants and labor activists turned out, midday, to agitate for the rights of immigrants and to call for a general amnesty for "undocumented" workers. This year, says Lynne Dodson, state co-chair of Jobs With Justice—another organizer of last week's event—immigrant rights are at the forefront of labor issues.
Dodson lists unions like SEIU (service workers), HERE (hotel and restaurant workers), and the Carpenters as being particularly active locally in organizing and advocating for immigrants.
"Right now it's a particularly critical time, especially post-Sept. 11. Labor has in a way been silent on immigration issues," she says. "The AFL-CIO [a federation of America's unions] passed a platform on immigrant issues and general amnesty, but since Sept. 11 it's been a bit trickier. We have a large immigrant population in Seattle, largely unorganized and unprotected."
Travel anywhere in the country, in fact, and you'll see the extraordinary demographic shift that is changing America's face. In Seattle, the shift hasn't gotten as much attention as in most places; many of our newcomers are scattered in the suburbs, where housing is somewhat more affordable and many of the service and industrial jobs are now located.
Among immigrants, the capriciousness and brutality of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) were legendary even before Sept. 11. Nonnative workers—citizens or not—are the most likely to be exploited by their bosses and by the law, and they're often the least likely to know what their rights are. Noncitizens are also increasingly likely to not be given the rights traditionally granted to all under our laws.
In some cases, says Ortega, the United States' own economic policies bring immigrants here. One woman, deported to Mexico last month after a local INS raid at Sky Chefs, the airline catering service, told him that her home village in Mexico's Michoacan state simply no longer exists. Its 25 families have all emigrated, because due to the North America Free Trade Agreement's (NAFTA) cheap corn imports, their farms can no longer make any money, and there are no other jobs. NAFTA, in effect, sends America's exports to Mexico and, in turn, imports the people who used to make the same things there. Now they're in the same type of low-wage farming or factory jobs here.
This, of course, is the flip side of another enormous issue for organized labor—the loss of better-paying American jobs to cheap foreign outsourcing. As corporations think more and more globally, so, too, is the labor force.
And in the rest of the world, unlike here, they remember what many of us have forgotten: our own country's history, Chicago, and the continuing struggle for the eight-hour day.
For information on campaigns for immigrant rights and general amnesty, contact Ricardo Ortega at email@example.com.