NYC labor movement: Let’s reclaim May Day

NEW YORK – “Reclaim the history of May Day for the working class!” That was the message of the April 8 organization and mobilization meeting for the May Day March and Rally that will take place May 1 in Manhattan’s Foley Square. Dozens of union locals, including SEIU 32 BJ and 1199, the United Federation of Teachers, Transport Workers Union Local 100, and peace and community groups have already endorsed it.

The demands are clear: an economic policy in the interest of the working class majority, the right to unionize and bargain collectively for all workers, full rights for immigrant workers, and jobs for all. All of this is part of the proposed platform for the May Day March and Rally.

The date is fitting for a rally that will highlight the needs of working people and immigrants. In 1884, the U.S. labor movement set May 1, 1886, as the day on which the eight-hour workday was to become standard. On that date, workers across the country – around half a million – went out on a general strike to demand the change in working hours. Rallies took place across the country, on that and following days.

On May 4, 1886, a rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square which united native-born and immigrant workers was disrupted by a bomb thrown by provocateurs, probably from the police. Police used this as an excuse to riot, killing at least a dozen people. They arrested the main rally organizers, and eight of them were put on trial for murder, though there was never any evidence presented that they were guilty of anything other than fighting for workers’ rights. Four of those tried were executed; one committed suicide in his jail cell.

Since then, in commemoration of the rally, its martyrs, and the fight for the eight-hour day, May 1 has in most countries been declared a holiday celebrating the working class and honoring its struggles.

Kevin Lynch of RWDSU/UFCW Local 338 solidified the sentiment of all who attended the 2010 May Day rally organizing meeting. His message was: We know how we lost the day – the Cold War and McCarthyism robbed the working people of this country of our rich heritage, which goes back to the fight for the eight-hour workday in May of 1886.

Councilman Robert Jackson and several other City Council members attended along with liaisons from State Assembly members Tom Duane and Rory Lancman. The City Council is helping to mobilize for the event.

The unions are raising the funds for what promises to be a major rally: the UFT, for example, put $5,000 into the mix.

Labor and immigrant rights organizations are key players, but the organizing committee is courting, and receiving a warm reception from, local grassroots organizations. A clergy member who helped mobilize the March for America rally asked how his church could help. Veterans for Peace Chapter 34 has endorsed the event, and will be represented at the march and rally carrying a Vets for Peace flag. According to a representative of the vets, “this is the beginning of a great and momentous movement.”

“Aside from a great kick-off,” said the Vets for Peace representative, “it is always a great opportunity to reconnect and meet new people in the movement. After all, it’s about coalition-building for a better community and world.”

Dan Margolis contributed to this article.

Photo: 2007 May Day immigrant rights rally in New York. / CC BY 2.0



Gabe Falsetta
Gabe Falsetta

Long-time social justice activist Gabe Falsetta writes from New York City.