[OPE-L] Peter Rachleff on May Day

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Fri Apr 28 2006 - 10:48:00 EDT

Sent to working-class-studies list.  I met Peter when I was in high
school (... a few years ago ...): we both grew up in the same
small city in Connecticut and his younger brother Larry (now an orchestra
leader in Houston, I think) was a friend and classmate of mine.  When
Peter was in college and visiting his parents, I saw him and he lent me --
at my request --  a copy of Mandel's two-volume _Marxist Economic Theory_.
I remember that Peter didn't much approve of Mandel's writings at the

In solidarity, Jerry

--------------------- Original Message ----------------------------
Subject: [Working-Class] Re: Question about May Day
From:    "Peter Rachleff" <rachleff@macalester.edu>

Dear Ana -- and Others:
Thanks for asking about May Day.  The heroic, impressive activism of
new immigrants has put many issues on our agenda -- their relations
with earlier generations of immigrants and their children and
grandchildren; their relation with our country's political traditions;
their relations with African Americans; the relationship between the
organized labor movement and new immigrant workers; how we understand
"human" and "civil" rights; the dynamics of race and racialization in
the US, from the "black/white binary" to the making of "whiteness";
how we United Statesians understand our relation to other "Americans"
and our place in the world as a whole.  I will be forever greatful to
the new immigrant activists for having stirred up all of this, and
more.  Asking about the legacy and meaning of May Day can provide a
valuable window into some of these issues.
  In the first place, given the ways this world is organized (racism,
the pursuit of profit, the exploitation of women, the destruction of
the environment, and more) how can one possibly "celebrate" workers'
"rights" without protesting?  Yesterday I gave a talk to skilled
trades students at St. Paul College about the significance of labor
history and the first question I was asked was: "As a worker, where in
the world might I find decent treatment?"  I could not offer an
answer.  From the US to Mexico to Brazil to India to South Africa, and
everywhere in between, global neoliberalism is attacking the work, the
working conditions, the compensation, the economic security, and the
quality of life of working women and men.  Perhaps, perhaps, May Day
can provide an opportunity to celebrate what workers have won over the
years, and it can express coming together in solidarity, but this has
never been and should never be separated from the need to struggle in
the present to secure past gains and respond to contemporary challenges.
  Some would argue (see David Roediger and Franklin Rosemont's
HAYMARKET SCRAPBOOK and David Roediger and Philip Foner, OUR OWN TIME)
that May Day began as a pagan holiday to celebrate the coming of
spring and the renewal of life.  This is certainly the core spirit of
the annual events organized by the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet
and Mask Theater in Minneapolis.  They call this the holiday's "green"
roots.  Others have noted that workers' activities around seasonal
hiring and the traditional beginning of the construction season made
May Day a pivotal workers' calendar date in workers' lives.  French
labor historian Michelle Perrot in her path-breaking history of 19th
century strikes (LES OUEVRIERS EN GREVE) crunches masses of police
file data to conclude that the first of May was the most strike prone
day of the year.  Building trades unions often struck on that day to
establish the wages, work rules, and conditions for the coming
season.  May Day clearly has multiple roots, which is probably what
makes it such an evocative and symbolic day for labor activists.
  Most labor historians and activists trace the modern origins of May
Day to the Knights of Labor's call for a national general strike on
May 1, 1886, to establish the eight hour day as the standard for all
United Statesian workers.  They had a simple, inspired/inspiring idea
-- for all workers to walk off the job on May 1, pledged that none of
them would return until all of them had been granted the eight hour
day.  Hundreds of thousands of workers around the US heeded that
strike call in 1886 (see Jeremy Brecher, STRIKE!).  Chicago became the
center of attention and, within Chicago, the largest factory in the
US, the McCormick Harvester Works.  There, KofL organizers held a
series of rallies and demonstrations urging the largely new immigrant
(Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Bohemian, etc.) workforce to put down their
tools and join the strike (see the wonderful new book, DEATH IN THE
HAYMARKET by James Green).  On the 4th day of the campaign, police
broke up a rally, charging that the activists did not have a permit.
A bomb was thrown into the ranks of the police, other police opened
fire on the crowd, a number died on both sides, and the movement's
organizers were arrested and charged with murder.  Several were
executed. Out of the protests which spread across the world came the
tradition of observing May 1 as an international workers' holiday.
Ironically, in the country where the events happened that inspired the
holiday, May 1st was erased from the labor movement's calendar.  In
the 1890s President Grover Cleveland mandated the first Monday in
September as "Labor Day" and it was embraced by the relatively
conservative leadership of the American Federation of Labor.  As this
day became a legal holiday, politicians and labor "leaders"
discouraged workers from celebrating May Day.  Nevertheless, labor
activists of all sorts continued to celebrate (see Bruce Nelson,
BEYOND THE MARTYRS) and, at times, their ranks and spirits were
renewed by new immigrants who brought passionate May Day traditions
with them into the United States.
  On rare occasions, May Day has continued to serve as a rallying
point for workers' militancy in the US.  In 1937, for instance,
thousands of steelworkers on strike for union recognition at Republic
and Bethlehem Steel organized a massive march in South Chicago.  As
they neared one of the mills, private security guards opened fire,
the pantheon of labor commemorations in the ensuing years (see Irving
  Please pardon me for having turned an email into a labor history
lecture, but it seems to me to be such an opportune moment for us to
investigate and identify the roots of this holiday.  It has always
been about "protest," albeit often with a celebratory spirit.   That
the movement for new immigrant rights has selected May Day for its
next demonstration is stunningly appropriate.  It is also a wonderful
opportunity for the rest of us to connect not only with them, but also
with our submerged past.
  Love and Solidarity,

anajeramendo@macalester.edu wrote:

> Hey Peter~
> I've been wanting to talk to you about May 1 and its history so that
> I can better understand what it's all about. But I guess I'll ask
> over email, especially because I just received this message and I'm
> not sure how to respond. Any ideas???  This was what I received: "May
> Day is supposed to be a celebration of workers' rights, not a
> protest."  I'm no expert, but if workers are being criminalized
> (despite what their legal citizenship status is), how can we
> celebrate? Am I wrong?
> Gracias,
> Ana

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