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May Day, not Labor Day, is the Real Worker and Immigrant Rights Day
SHARAT G. LIN, Ph.D., is president of the San Jose Peace and Justice Center. He writes on labor migration and global political economy and wrote this piece for the San Jose Mercury News.
Special to the Mercury News
On May 1, 2006, a quarter of a million people poured into the streets of San Jose in what was probably the largest political demonstration in Northern California history. They came out to protest the Illegal Immigration Control Act (HR 4437), which would have criminalized undocumented immigrants. The nationwide protests effectively stopped the bill in its tracks.
Marches for immigration reform have taken place on May 1 every year since. Join Sunday's rally for workers' and immigrant rights with a march to San Jose City Hall beginning at Story and King roads at 3 p.m.
Although little known to many Americans today, May Day was born in the United States out of the struggle of immigrant workers.
In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, predecessor of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), called for an eight-hour workday. When talks broke down, a general strike was called in Chicago on May 1, 1886. Some 80,000 workers marched down Chicago's Michigan Avenue in what is generally recognized as the first May Day parade. Supporting strikes broke out in other cities, such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati and New York.
On May 3, four striking workers were killed by police at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. The next evening at a rally in Haymarket Square in protest against the killings, police moved in to disperse the crowd when a bomb went off, killing seven policemen. Police retaliated by firing into the workers, killing and wounding an unknown number of civilians.
Determined to crush the labor agitations, police interrogations and arrests went on through the night and ensuing days. In a reign of terror, the homes of workers, mostly immigrants from Europe, were raided in the middle of the night. Many innocent people were arrested without charges. Eight people were eventually convicted for the deaths of the policemen, even though no evidence was ever presented directly linking them to the bombing in Haymarket Square. Four of the defendants were publicly hanged in 1887.
In Paris in 1889, the International Workingmen's Association called for worldwide demonstrations on May 1, 1890, commemorating the struggle of Chicago workers.
It took another three decades for workers to win the eight-hour working day through struggles with individual companies. Finally, the Adamson Act was passed by Congress in 1916, establishing a statutory eight-hour working day for railway workers with additional pay for overtime work.
Today May Day is celebrated in most countries around the world as International Workers' Day. Among major nations, the United States is the only one in which the government and the trade union bureaucracy have consistently resisted recognition of May Day, fearing the connection with labor movements around the world. Seeking an alternative date, Labor Day was created on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. However, it was not until 1894 that Congress made Labor Day a national holiday. But divorced from the heritage of labor struggle, Labor Day became a completely depoliticized holiday.
In contrast, May Day, because of its deep roots in the U.S. labor movement, is richly symbolic of labor activism. Though celebrated abroad, May Day originated from the very U.S. trade union movement that brought about the basic eight-hour working day that we now take for granted.
The immigrant workers' movement of today, in campaigning for humane immigration reform, an end to raids that break up families, and for the right of workers to unionize at work and organize in their communities, is following in the footsteps of the heroic Chicago workers. May Day is a true American tradition of immigrant workers yearning for inclusion as Americans.
SHARAT G. LIN, Ph.D., is president of the San Jose Peace and Justice Center. He writes on labor migration and global political economy and wrote this for the Mercury News.