“May Day Is Labor Day”

On May 1, 2006, immigrant communities and their allies took to the streets en masse, declaring it a “Day Without an Immigrant.” Fed up with second-class treatment and unjust immigration laws, nearly one million immigrant workers and their allies struck for a day to show just how integral their labor was to the economy of the United States.

120 years prior, on May 1, 1886, immigrant and native-born American workers alike struck as well in a massive show of force, years in the making. Going as far back as 1867, workers fought in concerted effort toward the eight-hour workday.

Inspired by the emancipation of black workers from chattel slavery and revolting against the crude conditions in the rapidly industrializing American economy, workers and their unions petitioned and protested against the long, arduous hours demanded of them by the growing factory system.

Responding to the militant Chicago labor movement, the Illinois state legislature passed an eight-hour day law in early 1867, intended to enter effect on May 1. The new law however, lacked any mechanisms for enforcement and employers refused to comply.

Nevertheless, the labor movement continued to grow. William Sylvis established the first nationwide labor federation, the National Labor Union, followed thereafter by the Knights of Labor, led for years by Terence Powderly, and in response, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions — the immediate predecessor to the American Federation of Labor (now AFL-CIO).

At their 1884 convention, the Federation — referring back to the unenforced Illinois legislation of 1867 — declared that two years from then, May 1, 1886 would be the day workers rose up and demanded at last their eight-hour day. Clubs and leagues of the “Eight-Hour Day Movement” began organizing immediately.

When the big day finally rolled around, over half a million workers struck nationwide, in every major city in the United States. In Chicago, the center of the movement, 80,000 workers marched up Michigan Ave. Two days later, police attacked pickets outside the McCormick Reaper Plant, murdering six workers with guns and clubs.

A massive rally was called in response at Haymarket Square, headed by the leaders of the local movement. Albert Parsons, August Spies, and Samuel Fielden spoke to a crowd of hundreds of grieving workers as dozens of police marched in, ordering the crowd to disperse.

In that moment, a bomb exploded among the police, killing one of them. The police frantically opened fire on the fleeing crowd, killing participants, bystanders, and other policemen.

The mayor declared martial law and the leaders of the Haymarket rally were immediately arrested, alongside five more defendants: Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Michael Schawb and Oscar Neebe. Of the eight defendants, six were immigrants.

Charged with conspiracy, trial lasted two months, showing extreme bias against the defendants. All trade union members and sympathizers were screened from serving on the hand picked-jury and evidence in favor of the defendants was disputed and dismissed. All eight were found guilty and five sentenced to death.

Lingg elected to take his own life while waiting in prison. The following day, November 11, 1887, Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer were taken to the gallows and hanged. In the moments before their deaths, they sang the Marseillaise and Spies shouted out, “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today!”

Two years later in Paris, 1889, revolutionary workers from around the world convened and declared May Day International Workers Day, to honor of the Haymarket Martyrs and the fight for the eight-hour day — a struggle not to be realized in the US until 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Wrongly imprisoned, Schawb, Neebe, and Fielden were finally pardoned in 1893 due to the tireless efforts of the widow of Albert Parsons, Lucy, who herself would go on in 1905 to help found the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or “Wobblies”) — as it were, from whom the ILWU adopted the motto: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

So here’s the deal: May Day’s coming up quick. In 2006, immigrant workers struck against an unjust system, against unfair labor stands, against injurious treatment and conditions. They struck as international workers in honor of those immigrants who fought for the same rights over a century prior, rights we along the waterfront enjoy today, but still many others sorely lack.

If it’s not clear already, Donald Trump is a racist. He launched his campaign attacking Mexicans and won on the promise to build a wall. He’s a brazen billionaire white supremacist hell bent on pitting one half of the working class against the other to all our destruction.

He hopes he can get native-born white workers to turn against black and brown workers, against foreign born workers, against workers with different religions, workers who speak different languages. That won’t happen if we don’t succumb to it, if we don’t allow it.

The ILWU knows the score. It’s woven into the fabric of the union, into its deep, proud history. The third of the Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU states clearly: Workers are indivisible. There can be no discrimination because of race, color, creed, national origin, religious or political belief… The eighth of those principles further states: The basic aspiration and desires of the workers throughout the world are the same. Workers are workers the world over…

May Day — the true Labor Day — is a day for all working people the world over. It’s a day to celebrate our gains, to mourn for our losses, to gather in common struggle and carry on. It’s Bloody Thursday for the entire working class. It is your day and mine.

This May Day, I’ll be hitting the bricks with other trade unionists in town and marching to the Northwest Detention Center right here in the Port of Tacoma (1623 East J Street, Tacoma, WA, 98421), demanding its closure and the immediate release of wrongly imprisoned fellow workers. Join us.


(This piece originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of ILWU Local 23’s local newspaper, Twenty-Three. It is reprinted here without anyone’s permission.)

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