Workers take back May Day

CHICAGO – Across the country yesterday, Sunday, May 1, tens of thousands of workers, led by the presidents of the nation’s largest unions, reclaimed May Day as an American holiday. (To view photos from Chicago’s events, click here.)

From a podium next to a memorial here for the Haymarket Martyrs, Terence O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, said: “May Day is the real Labor Day for American workers. For those who say it is a day associated with ideas too militant or too radical we say that there is nothing too militant or too radical when it comes to what must be done to protect the rights of workers.”

One hundred and twenty miles to the north, in Milwaukee, the president of the nation’s largest labor federation told a cheering crowd of more than 100,000: “May Day is our day to stand together!!”

“Gov. Scott Walker has declared war on Wisconsin workers,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka at the mass rally in Milwaukee. “We reject the idea that America can no longer be a great nation and that we’re too broke to treat people fairly.”

The crowds went wild, cheering, whistling and chanting.

Back in Chicago the crowds were so quiet that you could hear a pin drop when Lulu Martinez, a member of the Immigrant Youth Justice League told them from the podium, “I am undocumented and I am not afraid.”

As Martinez spoke union leaders on the stand wiped or choked back tears. She described how it was immigrant workers at the time of the Haymarket affair in 1886, who led the fight for the eight hour day, the fight for the right to assembly and free speech and the fight to form labor unions.

The fusing of the two great struggles of the day – the fight for workers rights and the fight for immigrant rights – was a feature of all the May Day rallies with unions rejecting the notion that immigrants take jobs away from the native born.

Some 10,000 May Day demonstrators in Los Angeles called for immigration reform, starting with passage of the Dream Act, which would provide undocumented youth with a route to legal residency through either higher education or service in the military.

According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center, if federal immigration reform included a path to legalization, California, alone, would add 633,000 jobs and increase tax revenue by $5.3 billion.

In Boston, thousands participated in a march that drew on the global fight for workers’ rights with the theme of “From Cairo to Wisconsin to Massachusetts Defend All Workers’ Rights.”

In Houston, the local chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement joined with Houston United in a huge rally for worker’ rights and immigrant rights.

Workers in Buffalo, N.Y. marched more than two miles from the east side of the city to the west side for a rally to protest the closing of a community health clinic.

In Chicago, Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer addressed the crowd at the Haymarket memorial. “What better place to gather than here,” she asked, adding, “the place where 125 years ago the struggle for the eight hour day and for collective bargaining rights was front and center.”

“But history repeats itself and today those gains themselves are in danger. We are here to show Chicago and the world that we are one and that we will not let that happen,” Shuler told the cheering crowd.

She said it was an “irony” that working-class people would “buy into this idea that America is broke because some workers get paid too much.”

“That’s nonsense,” she said. “This is the richest country in the world and we can well afford what unions have always fought for – jobs, health care, education and equal opportunity for all. And we will build a massive movement that will not stop until all of that comes true for all of us. We will not let them turn some of us against others of us.”

At the end of the Chicago rally the refurbished memorial to the Haymarket martyrs was unveiled.

It was police violence and a dynamite bomb at the Chicago demonstration that resulted in the deaths of both policemen and workers on May 4, 1886.

Eight randomly selected leaders of the eight-hour day movement were tried and four were hanged.

The issues the condemned men had fought for – the right to organize for things like the eight hour day, freedom of speech, freedom of press and the right to fair trials by jury – became the themes of May Day celebrations around the world for the last 125 years.

Sunday’s demonstrations all over the United States are seen as an indication that May Day is back in the country where it was born.

Photo: John Bachtell/PW.



John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.