What a pleasure to see International Worker’s Day return to the U.S., the country that gave it birth! Arise ye workers from your slumbers, I said to myself this morning as I watched the bread yeast bubbling up in the bowl. Bread and roses, I muttered an hour later as I introduced the glutinous “sponge” to the mix of oil, salt, ten-grain cereal and blackstrap molasses. Rise up!
International Workers’ Day (a name used interchangeably with May Day) is the commemoration of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago, Illinois, and a celebration of the social and economic achievements of the international labor movement. The 1 May date is used because in 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, inspired by labor’s 1872 success in Canada, demanded an eight-hour workday in the United States to come in effect as of May 1, 1886. This resulted in a general strike and the riot in Chicago of 1886, but eventually also in the official sanction of the eight-hour workday. The May Day Riots of 1894 and May Day Riots of 1919 occurred subsequently. […]
The Red Scare periods ended May Day as a mass holiday in the United States, a phenomenon which can be seen as somewhat ironic given that May Day originated in Chicago. Meanwhile, in countries other than the United States and United Kingdom, resident working classes fought hard to make May Day an official governmentally-sanctioned holiday, efforts which eventually largely succeeded. For this reason, May Day in most of the world today is marked by huge street rallies of workers led by their trade unions and various large socialist and communist parties — a phenomenon not generally seen in the U.S. (which has a history of strong anti-communism) or the UK. [Refer to the Wikipedia article for links.]
So today’s nationwide, one-day strike by Hispanic immigrant workers – condemned equally by George W. Bush and liberal icon Ted Kennedy – is an historic event, and augurs well for the future of organized labor. Already, over the past decade and a half, American workers have seen a bit of life return to the moribund labor movement as Mexican immigrants, in particular, have begun to organize. Immigrants are becoming as important to the U.S. economy as they were in the late 19th century, and are bringing similarly radical values – such as the idea that food, clothing and shelter are rights, not privileges, and the conviction that authorities are never to be completely trusted. This seems only appropriate, since the dominance of corporations and the gap between rich and poor are returning to levels not seen since the age of the robber barons.
This time around, though, we’ll need to organize whole communities, not just workplaces, and we’ll have to organize by ecoregion, not just by industry. The labor and environmental movements will have to work together. You may wonder why someone working for his parents ‘way out in the country should be so concerned about all this. But here in the Appalachians, we can’t afford not to care. Ridgetop forests are dying hundreds of miles to the east of the massive coal-burning power plants of the Ohio Valley – to say nothing of the terrible and irreversible destruction visited upon those mountains and mountain people unlucky enough to have coal under them. The mine wars of the 1920s and 30s in Kentucky and West Virginia were as brutal as any struggles in the long, bloody history of the American labor movement. The United Mine Workers won – but for what? So they could help perpetuate an inherently exploitative industry? So their descendents would be deprived of clean air, potable water, soil, wildlife, the very horizon – and would ultimately lose their jobs to mechanization anyway? They should’ve heeded the message of those idealistic young female textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who – according to James Oppenheimer, who wrote their song – “battle[d] too for men.” I would go so far as to say that an overwhelming focus on bread, to the exclusion of roses, has been the downfall of the American labor movement.
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread;
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew–
Yes, bread we fight for–but we fight for Roses, too.
[Search itunes for recorded versions by Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Ani DiFranco]
I thought of taking the day off to show solidarity with international workers, but I already dodged work yesterday to finish reading a novel I’d gotten sucked into (fiction being my personal – and very occasional – opiate). So I still have to plant fifty pine trees. Plus, we’re all out of bread.