Monday, April 27, 2009

May Day 1886/May Day 2009

An influx of immigrants. Huge communities of workers speaking many different languages, living and working in the worst conditions. An economic crisis, mass layoffs, cuts in worker pay and benefits, the poorest and most vulnerable hit first and hardest. Constant media scares about terrorism. Unions apparently solid and strong, then suddenly weak or broken.

Sounds familiar, right? Actually, I'm referring to a different time and a specific place.

1886. Chicago. That's when and where May Day was born, in a series of strikes and demonstrations culminating on May 1 that swept the city and shut it down in a multinational uprising the likes of which this country, and really the world, had never before seen, as the working class united to demand the eight-hour day. And then, starting on May 4, came the furious reaction of the ruling class. First, police were sent to attack a peaceful rally in Haymarket Square into which a provocateur tossed a bomb, which was the cops' signal to start shooting. Then, an unprecedented terror campaign was unleashed against Chicago's immigrant communities, unions, and working-class organizers, featuring sweeps of neighborhoods, mass jailings, union and meeting halls shut down, printing presses busted up and newspapers banned. And eight of the most visible leaders of the working masses charged with conspiracy to murder police--charged with murder based solely on their speeches in which they called on workers to rise up and fight for their rights. Five would die, one by his own hand and four at the gallows.

Albert Parsons. August Spies. Adolph Fisher. George Engel. It's safe to say that somewhere under 1 percent of the people in this country know their names. Yet the Haymarket Martyrs and the cause for which they died have everything to do with the situation facing 100 percent of the working class and oppressed in this country on May Day 2009.

May Day 2009 will be the fourth consecutive time mass demonstrations demanding workers' and immigrants' rights take to the streets in major cities across the U.S. The first was the amazing outpouring dubbed "A Day Without An Immigrant" on May Day 2006. It was fueled by a restive immigrant community ready to fight back against rising anti-immigrant attacks. A great many of these immigrants came from countries, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, with grand traditions of labor struggles and themselves had rich experience in union organizing.

Lead banner of the 2006 May Day march in NYC. That's my lover Teresa Gutierrez, a national leader in the immigrant-rights movement, between the Revs. Sharpton and Jackson.

In fact, and here we come full circle, many if not most of the Latin American immigrant workers who made the first mass May Day come to life in 2006 know very well the names of Parsons, Spies, Fisher and Engel. In workers' homes throughout Latin America you can find portraits of the Haymarket Martyrs hanging on the walls. The spirit of struggle, of solidarity and unity, embodied in what the workers of Chicago were trying to do in 1886 is alive again in today's May Day marches and rallies.Here in New York, we'll be gathering at Union Square and marching down to the Federal Building. In other cities check with your local May Day coalitions. Wherever you are, take the day off--it's May Day, the international workers' holiday, so proclaimed by the Second International in 1889 explicitly in honor of the Haymarket struggle. Claim it!