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The significance of May Day

Yesterday marked 127 years since the infamous Chicago Haymarket protests. On May 1, 1886, approximately 35,000 workers walked off their jobs, demanding the standardization of eight-hour workdays. Many labor historians point to this day in U.S. history as the inception of International Worker’s Day, more commonly referred to as May Day.

Following the riots in Chicago, labor protests spread across France, Germany and the United Kingdom. As a result, European governments began to formally recognize International Worker’s Day, but the U.S. government was still reluctant to adopt it.

However Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at University of California Santa Barbra, said in a phone interview with Need to Know that the origin of May Day stems from a much earlier time in history.

“May Day has ancient roots in the spring festivals of rebirth. It is a day from medieval England and other peasant societies. So for the working classes it’s seen as a moment of rebirth.”

“Because of the violence at the Hay Day markets, which stood for anarchy and revolution, the federal government adopts Labor Day instead and places it in September,” Lichtenstein said. He also suggested that the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia on May 11917 exacerbated the U.S. government’s anxiety towards the holiday. In an attempt to change the day’s meaning, “President Dwight D. Eisenhower declares May first law day in the 1950’s. And prior to that, during the first World War, May Day was declared national loyalty day.” The U.S. government continued to reject May Day’s adoption throughout the Cold War.

Omar Enriquez, a board member with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, was active yesterday in setting up May Day events around Long Island. These events focused specifically on the rights of immigrant workers. In an interview, Enriquez said he believes it is the immigrant population in the U.S. that has played a critical role in May Day’s past and present day recognition.

“The working class in America has always had a strong immigrant base,” he said. “The strikers during the 1886 Chicago Haymarket riots were predominantly Italian or Irish. Immigrants brought the tradition of International Worker’s day from their homes to the United States for the holiday to be formally recognized here.”

Parade marchers hold banners as they walk the parade route in Long Island, New York City, May 1, 2013. Photo: Chris Remington

Fifty miles east, protesters gathered late in the afternoon for the Unified March for Immigrant and Worker’s Rights in Manhattan. The parade was part of a series of events coordinated by members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, union representatives and labor rights activists.

Marchers carried flags and wore cultural garments representing nations from across the globe. Among those marching was New York City’s Socialist Worker’s Party candidate for mayor, Dan Fein. Emphasizing the importance of socialism in May Day’s history, Fein recognizes that it is the protection of immigrant workers rights’ that unifies contemporary protests.

He said, “At today’s parade we have workers of different religions, languages and ethnicity who are bonded together to stop mass deportations and protect immigrant worker’s.”

Lichtenstein indicated that in the past several years affecting immigration policy has been at the heart of May Day events. In particular, he found the 2006 May Day rally in Los Angeles to be the apex of the modern movement for worker’s rights. There, nearly 500,000 immigrants and their supporters, the majority Latino, marched in the streets. According to Lichtenstein, the activists staged the events on a weekday to show society “how America would function without immigrant workers.” Immigrant rights activists, therefore, dubbed this specific May Day, “A Day without Immigrants.”

Parade marchers walk through the streets of Manhattan, New York City, May 1, 2013. Photo: Chris Remington

As the immigration debate continues in Washington D.C., Omar Enriquez is hopeful yesterday’s protests will have an impact on today’s policy makers. “The immigration debate has always been defined as a political issue,” he said. “It should be seen as a human issue. Hopefully, lawmakers in Washington will see the protesters on May Day and recognize the need to respect the rights of immigrant workers as humans.”

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