May Day: finding its way back home

May Day 2008 would have been a great time for both.

Not that long ago labor activists had to struggle with a cold war mythology that had May Day as a creation of the Soviet Union. Back in the late 1960s, my Steelworkers local union boldly, but nervously, published an article I wrote titled after my button, “May Day, made in the USA.” My local president asked, “Well, this is all true isn’t it? It really did originate out of the Haymarket eight-hour-day protest in 1886, right? Samuel Gompers really did propose it to an international labor meeting in Paris in 1889, right?” My president knew the history very well, but wanted to be reassured and prepared.

This year, unions, central labor councils, labor history societies and labor allies around the country joined with others around the world to celebrate this true international workers’ holiday. And like the original Gompers proposal, May Day is seen as a day of action, a day of fightback. So this year the West Coast longshore workers took May Day off to protest the war in Iraq, to demand fairness for immigrants and to demand a decent union contract in critical negotiations with shippers and dock owners. Unions and labor councils around the United States endorsed and supported the longshore action and added their voice to this May Day call from labor to end the war.

A real turning point in bringing May Day home to the USA was three years ago, when immigrant workers, their families and their supporters led massive marches to protest terrible Bush/Republican anti-immigrant attack legislation. With full labor support, these demonstrations took a big step in reviving the struggle side of May Day. They helped move celebrations beyond the important notion of reclaiming the real history of May Day, to once again making it a day of struggle for the working class and labor. And true to that lead, immigrant rights demonstrations were front and center on May Day 2008.

So why mention my other dream button? Because “workers of the world unite!” is definitely “back by popular demand,” and May Day 2008 shows it. As the PWW editorial last week pointed out, unions around the world are taking bold steps to promote a global response to the transnational nature of capitalism today.

For example, the Steelworkers are actually merging into a transatlantic union with a British industrial union on their way to even bigger international mergers. The Communications Workers are organizing whole new unions to be affiliated with both their union and their counterpart German union. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor federations are also forming all kinds of new international ties and supporting worker-to-worker exchanges and solidarity designed to promote more global labor unity and action. Sounds like “workers of the world, unite” to me.

What’s really happening is that world labor, including U.S. labor, really gets it. You don’t have to be Karl Marx or a Marxist to see it. The two major world labor federations, former cold war rivals, now also embrace a “workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains” program of united action.

Cynics and purists will no doubt cry, “What’s new? Even in the worst cold war years there was always a strong contingent of the left and labor that understood and championed ‘workers of the world, unite.’” Very true, and Communists in the first place. But Marx noted that an idea becomes a material force when it is grasped by the masses.

May Day 2008 shows that globally millions, not thousands, of workers, their families, their supporters and allies are moving to understand the real meaning of “workers of the world unite.” It is not just a slogan that says, “Why can’t we be friends?” It is that. But more, it is increasingly understood as a necessity, a strategy and a call to action against capitalist globalization. Against racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant, anti-labor transnational attacks. May Day USA 2008 is the maturing of an internationalist outlook of struggle for the world’s working class and people by U.S. labor. I’d call that: “Back by popular demand.”

Scott Marshall (scott@rednet.org) chairs the Communist Party USA’s Labor Commission.