Happy May Day!

by Peggy McGuinness

Check out these current and historical photos over at Slate honoring International Workers Day, which, despite its origins in the US, is not celebrated here. But it is still a holiday in many countries. And it is no coincidence that today was chosen to be boycott day (El Gran Paro Americano) for US immigrants.

Whether your sympathies lie with the workers movement or you enjoy a little Morris dancing every now and then, enjoy the day.


14 Responses

  1. Peggy,

    Happy May Day to you!

    None of my students this morning could tell me about the origins of May Day, although I was relieved to learn that at least a few of them knew about El Gran Paro Americano and Un dia sin immigrante. The organizers did indeed choose an auspicious date.

    Santa Barbara is really quiet (little traffic, etc.), evidence that the boycott is working (some restaurants and businesses are closed), while the scheduled workshops and demonstrations are to begin shortly. Organizers here hoped students would attend school first, and then participate in the actions. I just heard on the radio that several hundred thousand folks have turned out in LA this morning and the numbers are expected to climb throughout the day.

    If memory serves me correctly, Eric Hobsbawm has a nice discussion of May Day in his book, Workers: Worlds of Labor (New York: Pantheon, 1985) (I can’t find my copy). As Jeremy Brecher writes in Strike! (San Francisco, CA: Straight Arrow Books, 1972), ‘In 1984, a dying organization, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1, 1886.”’ Opposed by organized labor’s leadership (e.g. the Knights of Labor), ‘the idea of a general strike for the eighth-hour day had caught the imagination of tens of thousands of workers.’ Demonstrations up to the date were followed by strikes that began on May 1, 1886 and continued for several days afterward. The hysteria in the wake of the Haymarket bombing (see Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, 1984) ‘gave the signal for law and order forces throughout the country to act.’ Brecher concludes that, although a ‘pattern of demoralization and compromise’ reverberated throughout the country, it is worth recalling that ‘the mass strike of 1886 was an attempt by the new class of industrial workers to use their power to gain some control over the conditions of their life and work. [….] The eight-hour strike was both an assertion that the worker was a human being whose life should not be consumed in toil, and an attack on the deliberate policy of keeping hours long and unemployment high in order to get the most work for the least wages.’

    During a time characterized by the global consolidation of the commodification of labor (part of the ‘fetishism of commodities’ and the principle reason for the ‘alienation of labor’), such history is well-worth recounting. And this story likewise serves to remind us why, as Jonathan Wolff writes, ‘Marx remains the most profound and acute critic of capitalism, even as it exists today.’

    And now for the Morris dancing…as Emma Goldman said, ‘If I can’t dance, I won’t be part of your revolution!’

  2. Of course the date in the first quote from Brecher should read ‘1884.’

  3. Patrick–

    I’d be interested in hearing your observations about the strike tomorrow after the dust has settled. Here is mid-Missouri, not too much effect at all. We have a microscopic immigrant population — apart from foreign students and faculty on campus — though there are many migrant farm laborers in the rural areas.

  4. OK, I’ll chime in tomorrow….Santa Barbara is chock full of immigrant families (second generation, etc.) and the wealthy in our town and nearby in Montecito are utterly dependent on them: housekeepers, gardeners (and any landscape and nursery oriented businesses), construction trades, many retail businesses, especially the restaurants and food-related service industries, and farmworkers both to the south (Oxnard) and north of us (Santa Maria, etc.). When I was a finish carpenter for a local building contractor, many of my fellow employees were Latino/Mexican-American (I learned ‘working Spanish,’ literally and figuratively!), and most of them exemplified the Puritan work ethic thing better than their Anglo counterparts. At the local hospital where my wife works (one of the area’s largest employers, next to UC Santa Barbara), a high percentage of the employees are, again, Latino/Mexican American. Of course immigrant families work in other industries and fields as well: I would go so far as to say that they are the labor backbone of this region, although less and less of them can afford, as homeowners, to live in the city proper.

    Meanwhile, a very interesting article in today’s Los Angeles Times profiles one of the organizers of the boycott, Jesse Diaz, Jr.: ‘Activist’s Persistence a Driving Force of Boycott,’ by Ashley Powers. Diaz is a doctoral candidate who also works as a landscaper (a man after my own heart!):

    ‘His father, Diaz recalled, housed immigrant workers in a backyard trailer and nudged them to start their own catering and printing businesses. His mother took in needy people she met at church.

    Diaz went through difficult times before becoming an activist. A heroin addict who was in and out of jail for drug-related crimes, he said he got his life back on track in his 20s.

    By then a father of four, Diaz returned to his father’s trade, landscaping. He enrolled at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga in the late 1990s, about the time he and his wife, Virginia, first met.

    “I think that my husband has a lot of courage,” Virginia Diaz said last week, “He talks to people, and they hate right back at him.”

    As a scholarship student at Pitzer College in Claremont, Diaz interned at the Pomona Day Labor Center in 2001 and developed his penchant for activism.

    Inspired by Jose Calderon, a professor of sociology and Chicano studies at the college, Diaz studied Cesar Chavez and Bert Corona and helped battle employers who stiffed their day laborers.

    Diaz worked with Calderon on a three-day march from Claremont to Los Angeles to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s repeal of a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. He fasted with other students to organize cafeteria workers, Calderon said, and performed political theater for farmworkers.

    “I know what it’s like to live in the shadows, man. I can feel it,” Diaz said. “That’s my connection to these folks. I know what’s it’s like to live day by day.”

    After graduating from Pitzer in 2002, Diaz went on to earn a master’s degree in sociology from UC Riverside, where he is now a doctoral student. Initially, Diaz said, he held on to his gardening gig to stay in touch with his working-class roots as he climbed the academic ladder. But now he cuts grass and blows away leaves to pay his 15-year-old daughter’s tuition at a private school for Adventists.’

  5. Also, I just noticed I should have said ‘principal reason’ rather than ‘principle reason’ in first (and parenthetical) comment above. Embarrassing!

  6. May Day Marches (after the dust has settled):

    The cover photo of this morning’s Los Angeles Times is quite moving: a sea of immigrants and their supporters filling the streets of downtown Los Angeles waving American flags. A morning march drew a crowd of around 250,000, while later in the day at least 400,000 demonstrators marched peacefully for a ‘taste of the American dream.’ (It appears these rallies were the nation’s largest, with Chicago’s coming in a close second.) Here in Santa Barbara, it is estimated that at least 15,000 marchers proceeded up State Street from Ortega Park to the well-manicured grounds of the historic County Courthouse building, making it the largest demonstration in the city’s history! Roughly 5,000 students were reported by the school district to have not shown up for classes, a disturbing number only insofar as a substantial chunk of school funding is tied to daily attendance figures. In the Los Angeles Unified middle and high schools, 27% of the students were absent from classes.

    I think it is safe to conclude that by most measures the day’s political events were an unmitigated success. Activists have expressed their desire to take advantage of the political momentum and spillover effects from Monday’s demonstrations by energizing citizenship drives and voter registration, as well as in getting out the vote in the June primary elections. Legislators dismissive of the demonstrators’ concerns, and if only for demographic reasons, might as well be straddling the cracks of the San Andreas Fault Line: in short, they’re on shaky ground. As today’s paper notes, immigrant workers clearly demonstrated their importance to the California economy. And not a few immigrants, out of fear of losing their jobs or economic necessity, went about their normal work routines, passing up demonstrations while assuring the structural integrity of the powerful underground economy of domestic workers in this region. In the country as a whole, the workforce made up of illegal immigrants is higher in private households–27%–than in any other sector.

    One thing to keep in mind is the extraordinary number of sons (and yes, some daughters) of these working-class immigrants that have served and are serving in our nation’s armed forces. The Times (no, not that one!) frequently has moving obituaries that testify to the patriotic sacrifices these families have made.

    The paper’s lead editorial puts it well: “LA’s invisible workforce emerged not in a spirit of anger or defiance, but with pride and exuberance. It was all so, well, American.”

  7. The protests were a fizzle in NYC, and are already generating an increased backlash around the country, despite Mr. O’Donnell’s predictable view that they were a national success. Illegal aliens should not get amnesty; those caught should be deported; and employers of same should be severely penalized.

    And I speak as someone strongly in favor of LEGAL immigration, who recently adopted and brought to this great country our new daughter — legally.

  8. Apart from the fact a ‘backlash’ is mostly likely a figment of the collective imagination of FOX News and the delirious desires voiced in the rabid ramblings of xenophobic, fascist-sounding radio talk-show hosts, it is irrelevant to the criteria I would employ in assessing whether or not the workshops, marches, and boycotts were a success. As Gandhi memorably noted, nonviolent political campaigns (satyagraha) often serve to bring latent, repressed conflict of one kind or another to the surface, often in violent form, where it can be dealt with in a forthright manner in light of the ‘publicity’ intrinsic to civil society (part of the process of ‘elevating’ the conflict). The by-products of this conflict resolution strategy are not always pleasant, as ugly emotions and psycho-patholigies erupt with unpredictable and unsettling intensity and frequency: hence the racist claptrap of late bubbling to the surface. The resort to nonviolent political strategies is necessitated when those with political authority and power are no longer liable to suasion by reason owing to ‘self-rightesousness, dogmatism, prejudice, ill-will, self-interest, limited sympathies, moral inertia and sheer obstinacy…'(Bhikhu Parekh). Like a Gandhian satyagraha campaign, the May Day protests served as a popular national ‘awakening’ (recall that the intent here is to mobilize public opinion by reaching reason through the heart). Now I’m not claiming that the organizers and activists were Gandhian-like satyagrahis, only that Gandhian theory and practice on nonviolence offers some insight into the political and cultural dynamics that were–and are–part of the May Day marches.

  9. erratum: ‘is most likely’

  10. erratum 2: ‘psycho-pathologies’

  11. Who is this O’Donnell character? Memo to Patrick: Ghandi’s dead; but we have to live with 15 million illegal aliens. Many of the legal immigrants I know are very angry at those who’ve come here illegally. Please provide your home address so I tell the illegals to head over to your neck of the woods.


    a Property Owner who’s taxes are skyrocketing.

  12. Dear Cassandra,

    Who is ‘Ghandi’? Try living without 15 million illegal immigrants, you’ll be complaining about more than your property taxes. How do you propose to stop illegal immigration? If you’re with Mr. Tuttle above, think through the costs and logistics of law enforcement involved in deporting illegal immigrants, etc., etc. Illegal immigration will continue so long as nearby countries like Mexico have such comparatively weak economies. Until the US and other affluent nations of the North can sincerely commit to closing the economic gap noted above in Chris Borgen’s post, illegal immigration will be a ‘problem.’

    Your letter reminds me why Erich Fromm (he’s dead too, by the way) diagnosed much of our cultural and political life as symptomatic expressions of low-grade, chronic schizoid tendencies.

  13. In our local paper today there’s an informative piece by Shikha Dalmia that explains how as a result of IRS changes, individuals can file income tax returns without Social Security numbers, the agency providing identification numbers in their place. As a result, it is estimated that close to 8 million of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants file personal income taxes, thereby ‘contributing billions to federal coffers.’ And those illegal immigrants not self-employed, have Social Security and Medicare taxes withheld from their paychecks: ‘Since undocumented workers have only fake numbers, they’ll never be able to collect the benefits these taxes are meant to pay for.’ And of course all illegal immigrants pay sales and other non-federal taxes. And what is more, ‘The non-partisan National Research Council found that when the taxes paid by the children of low-skilled immigrant families–most of whom are illegal–are factored in, they contribute on average $80,000 more to federal coffers than they consume.’

    As she concludes, ‘politicians ought to set the record straight: Illegals are not milking the government. If anything, it is the other way around.’

  14. Last comment, I promise. Re: the Hobsbawm reference above

    Our daughter, determined to find the book her dad was complaining about having lost, dug behind the volumes aligned on the bookshelves, finding the Hobsbawm title that had disappeared from view in that dark and dusty space between the books and bookcase backing. So…his discussion of May Day is found in chapter 5,

    ‘The Transformation of Labor Rituals,’ pp. 66-82.

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