May Day Meditations

Chicago's May Day Parade along Jackson Boulevard (Credit: Susan Barsy)
I WAS RUSHING out of my office building the other day when I ran smack dab into a May Day parade.  It took me a minute to realize it wasn’t just another Occupy rally.  No, the date was the first of May, when, by tradition, workers around the world take to the streets en masse, their parades a vivid display of emotion and identity.

Chicago police watching the 2012 May Day parade (Credit: Susan Barsy)It was striking was how un-specific this demonstration was.  It didn’t have much to do with labor in particular or something specific workers might actually need.  It seemed to have more to do with how unfair life is—a general proposition we might all assent to.

Bystanders watching the Chicago May Day parade at Dearborn & Jackson (Credit: Susan Barsy)Seeing the marchers made me think about how much the nature of work and the status of workers in the US has changed over the decades, since May Day observances first began.  International Workers Day, as it is officially called, was instituted to mark the anniversary of the Haymarket disturbances in Chicago when, in 1886, violence erupted as police sought to dispel a crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality toward workers demonstrating for the eight-hour day.  Eight policemen were killed, an unknown number of protesters were killed and injured, and 4 probably innocent demonstrators were later hanged in what was one of the most infamous incidents in labor history.

May Day protesters in front of the Dearborn Street Post Office, Chicago (Credit: Susan Barsy)The heroic struggles of those earlier generations of workers were quite remarkable.  Their disciplined efforts brought about many important gains: the abolition of child labor, the minimum wage, safety inspections, the 40-hour week.  Without the labor movement, most of us would not have anything like the standard of living we enjoy today.  One has only to dip into Freidrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Classes in England or Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills or Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives to recall why their struggles were necessary.

Bits of that story are told in photographs such as these, preserved at the Library of Congress.

Children wearing sashes in Hebrew and English bearing the words "Abolish Child Slavery"These girls were photographed on May Day in New York City in 1909.  Their sashes bear the words “Abolish Child Slavery” in English and Yiddish.

African American protester in 1909 wearing a hat card with the words "Bread of Revolution"This protester was a member of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World), also known as “the Wobblies.”  Wobblies believed in the international brotherhood of labor and dreamed of improving conditions of workers the world over.  A labor movement like that today would still have much to do.  Looking at this photo makes me think of some of the labor movement’s missed opportunities.

Photograph of female garment workers in NYC parade, 1919 (Courteay Library of Congress)
In good times and bad, May Day has inspired expressions of worker pride, as displayed in this wonderful photograph of female garment workers in 1919.  You would never guess from looking at these ladies how very punishing their occupation was.

Maybe that is one of the differences between that era and today: whereas, then, many workers suffered from conditions that were local and immediate, the costs global capitalism inflicts on American workers are more abstract and harder to see.

There was a great deal to ponder in even a fleeting glimpse of a modern May Day parade.

Additional information regarding Library of Congress images:
here and here and here

3 responses

  1. Susan:
    Great article! For years, knowing full well that they would not get it, I used to ask my American Chicago MBA students what it was the world “celebrated” on May 1st. Almost never would any know, and, to their embarrassment, at least one foreign student always did. In fact, the only time an American ever knew about it was if s/he was a real Chicagoan—a multi-generation Chicagoan who grew up in the city.

    I used this question to suggest why it was a good idea for even MBAs to learn a little labor history—and this fed into discussions of the conspiracy doctrine, the growth of urban trade unions during the Jacksonian boom, and the Knights of Labor v. the AFL. Now, I no longer teach labor-management relations, because there is no interest in the subject among our students!

    • Bob–Interesting anecdote. To be perfectly honest, I learned only yesterday that Haymarket was the genesis of International Workers Day, which, interestingly, is not an officially observed US holiday. I had thought its origins were in Russia.

      It seems to me that the problems of American labor are now more difficult to grasp and talk about because “American work” is not at all synonymous with “organized labor.” I think only something like 11 percent of American workers now belong to unions, so that, conversely, the unions represent a sort of privileged (because organized) minority rather than the whole. Historically, that’s always been true, but it’s more pronounced and problematic now than in earlier decades.

      The main problem for American labor is not working conditions in the US but the risk and reality of joblessness and underemployment because of global competition. Neither party wants to take this on.

      Good to hear from you.