Friday, April 25, 2008

Putting May Day back in the books

Workers Memorial Day and May Day: Putting back the history that was "stripped from the books."
At the annual Workers Memorial Day Breakfast in Philadelphia this morning 300 assembled trade unionists honored the over 160 men and women who died on the job during the past year in the tri-state area (PA, south Jersey, DE). Some of the families were present, and some family members spoke. The featured speaker was freshman Congressman Joe Sestak from suburban Delaware County. He told the crowd about his experience in just a year on the House Education and Labor Committee, which has held hearings preliminary to writing stronger legislation to protect workers and enforce penalties against employers who flout the law. Hearing the testimony of one worker after another about the hazards they faced on the job and the difficulties they encountered in correcting them, had, he stated, caused him to feel more strongly than ever about the need to strengthen OSHA and repair the years of damage done by the Bush Administration's cavalier pro-big business policies. Philadelphia AFL-CIO president Pat Eiding and PA AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Rick Bloomingdale also spoke. It was a morning full of poignant and thought provoking moments.
But this year the guests also got a new--and perhaps to many--an unexpected bonus. They heard Jim Moran, founding member of the Philadelphia Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PHILAPOSH, which sponsors the breakfast) give a brief, but, in the circumstances, amazing history lesson. He announced that this year on Thursday May 1, a program would be held to dedicate a Workers' Memorial at Elmwood Park in the city's southwest section. He went on to relate the story of the Haymarket massacre and the Haymarket martyrs and to tell how international Labor Day had been born in the USA and adopted by labor around the world. Pointing out that workers in every nation but the US celebrate May Day as Labor Day, he said, "probably many people here did not know this story; this knowledge was stripped from our history books and stripped from our memories." The assembled guests, representing many different unions, gave Moran a stong ovation when he finished.
I've heard the comment around here recently, "This is not your fathers' labor movement." While I do not entirely agree with the literal meaning of those words, the statement is generally intended to refer to positive changes going on all around us as labor confronts daunting challenges, old and new. This morning's breakfast provides an example of truth of that statement.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Moran deserves support but we especially must, and I say must, make the point that May was and in many places still is much more than Labor Day. It was seen as a day of contemplation, demonstations, and struggle, and was associated through the world with the socialist movement and its guiding Marxist leadership from the 1890s on. It helped bring about the development of the Second International and, after the great schism in the Marxist Socialist movement which followed the Russian Revolution and the dev elopment of separate and competitive Socialist and Communist Parties and Internationals in the World, it continued to be celebated by both the Socialist and Communist Internationals through the World.
In the U.S. there were large May Day rallies, especially in New York's Union Square, in the 1930s and 1940s. May Day through was suppressed with the outbreak of the Korean War(in New York with a good deal of police brutality) as part of the cold war) Left activists did revive Union Square rallies in New York in the 1970s but we have, to the best of my knowledge, not had large May Day parades as we did in the 1930s and 1940s anywhere in the U.S.
Jim Moran is right of course that May Day was chosen as a Day of protest to commemorate the leaders of the Haymarket demonstration who were tried and executed as scapegoats for the Haymarket Riot of 1886. The demonstrations themselves were part of a national movement called for by the Knights of Labor to fight for an Eight Hour Day. As a standard, the Eight Hour Day was not established in the U.S. until 1938, with the Fair Labor Standards Act, which the New Deal government passed in response to the militancy and the victories of a left and Communist led labor movement. In terms of provisions of the act, including overtime pay, minimun wages(possibly even the outlawing of child labor)they have been under attack by the capitalist class since they were enacted and have been undermined over the last three decades. That is also an important part of the history as we revive May Day as a workers day, hopefully with its original intent, a day of solidarity and struggle for labor, a day that labor shows its strength to its class enemies.
Norman Markowitz