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

The Political Animal at Rest

Production still of Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason

Aristotle conceived of us as political animals, attaining complete fulfillment only through participation in political life.  If true, this interminable campaign season should be one of our happiest times.

Thrilled as we may be with the eat-drink-politics character of the weeks unfolding, we must be on guard: some 235 days remain before the general election.  Political animals are highly sensitive, and have been known to be susceptible to sudden mood swings.  For such high-strung creatures, political engagement 24/7 simply isn’t healthy.

Happily, their forebears have created a magnificent canon of diverting novels and movies, whether about campaigning and the presidency, or about Washington, government, paranoia, political eras, or the political bug more generally.  Just the other day, I saw a love story set against the unlikely backdrop of the G8.  Pastimes for the political?  There are endless possibilities.  Not all are great works by any means: some are fantastic, some hard-hitting, others irreverent or downright silly.  But they speak to a political animal’s recreational needs by furnishing an excuse to think about politics by other means.

Walter Brennan in Frank Capra's 1941 film, "Meet John Doe"

Today’s recommended diversion: Meet John Doe (1941), an old chestnut by Frank Capra that seems tailor-made for our times.  With its Depression-crazed characters struggling in the grip of an all-destroying capitalism, the film reads like something straight out of Occupy.  Gary Cooper is Long John Willoughby, a down-and-out ballplayer who, for the sake of 50 dollars, agrees to become “John Doe,” a symbolic everyman he knows to be a journalistic fraud.  Barbara Stanwyck is journalist Ann Mitchell, scheming to make John Doe a sensation out of professional vanity and for the sake of keeping her job.  Both become better humans as they struggle against D.B. Norton (is that D.B. for Dollar Bills?), an oil-turned-newspaper baron intent on controlling politics and public opinion.  Walter Brennan nearly steals the show as Willoughby’s sidekick “the Colonel,” a fellow bum who is the moral center of the movie.  His classic warning against “the heelots” is a must-see.

Meet John Doe is in the public domain.  You can watch it immediately in its entirety via YouTube or the Internet Archive.  Go for it.  Because you know what?  The real thing’ll still be there in a few hours’ time.

Image (top): Publicity still for Meet John Doe
with Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason,
from this source.

Image (bottom): Walter Brennan in Meet John Doe,
public domain.