May Day: Marching in the Footsteps of Chicago Immigrant Workers

As millions of immigrant workers across the country consider whether to march on May 1, they do so under a new cloud of fear.  In 2006, the fear that drove people into the streets on May 1 and the preceding two months was the threat that the “Sensenbrenner” Illegal Immigration Control Act (HR 4437) passed by the House of Representatives on December 16, 2005 would criminalize undocumented immigrants.  The May Day marches of 2006 effectively stopped HR 4437 in its tracks.

This year in 2007, the fear is surprise raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that are terrorizing hard-working undocumented immigrants who have no criminal history.  The ICE raids have broken up families, and too often have inadvertently turned children who were born in this country into orphans.  The raids equally terrorize family members who are legal residents or citizens.


May Day itself was born, in part, out of fear of police raids on 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 implementation appeared unlikely, a general strike was called in Chicago on May 1, 1886.  On that day, some 80,000 workers marched down Chicago‘s Michigan Avenue in what is generally recognized as the first May Day parade.  In the succeeding days, supporting strikes broke out in other cities, such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and New York City.


On May 3, four striking workers were killed by police at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago.  At an evening rally on May 4 in Haymarket Square, called to protest the killings, police moved in to disperse the crowd when a bomb went off, killing seven policemen.  Police retaliated by firing into the crowd of 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 the ensuing days.  Homes of workers, most of whom were immigrants from Europe, were raided in the middle of the night.   Many innocent people were arrested without charges.  A police rein of terror descended on the organized workers of Chicago.


Eight people were eventually charged and 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 (Second International) called for worldwide demonstrations on May 1, 1890, commemorating the struggle of Chicago workers.  The international tradition of May Day was born.


It took another three decades for workers to incrementally 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 traditionally celebrated in most industrialized and developing countries around the world as International Workers’ Day.  Among major nations, the United States is the only one to have successive governments and the trade union bureaucracy consistently resisting recognition of May Day, fearing the connection with labor movements around the world.  Seeking an alternative date, Labor Day was created to recognize the contribution of American workers on September 5, 1882 in New York City.   In 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as a holiday from labor.  However, it was not until 1894 that Congress made Labor Day a national holiday.  But without the heritage of strikes and labor struggle, Labor Day emerged and remained a completely depoliticized day.


In contrast, May Day, because of its deep roots in U.S. working class struggle, is richly symbolic of labor activism.  Contrary to popular myth in the U.S., May Day did not originate abroad, but rather from the very U.S.  trade union movement that brought about the basic eight-hour working day that is taken so much for granted today.  From the struggle against a guest worker program that would create a stratum of second class workers to opposing the ICE police raids, the immigrant workers’ rights movement of today is following in the footsteps of the heroic Chicago workers who gave birth to May Day.  May Day is a true American immigrant tradition.  Now being revived after 70 years of dormancy, it is gradually regaining support among established labor unions.


 - Sharat G. Lin writes on migrant labor issues, global political economy, the Middle East, India, and the environment.



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