This letter to the editor was written by Adam Rea, Secretary of the Athens-Area Democratic Socialists of America.
The origins of a holiday celebrating workers can be traced back to labor and trade union movements in the late 19th century. As dreadful working conditions in factories became highly publicized during this period, particularly in meat packing plants, through works such as Upton Sinclar’s The Jungle, movements to improve working conditions (both for workers and for public health and safety) grew in size and intensity. On May 3, 1886, as workers rallied to demand an eight-hour workday in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, mass confusion erupted when a bomb exploded in the crowd and the police opened fire on the crowd. The “Haymarket Affair,” as this event is remembered, was used as pretext for widespread repression of workers and for the arrests of labor organizers, radicals and immigrants.
Not coincidentally, as progressive organizations and labor parties around the world began to celebrate International Workers Day on May 1st in commemoration of the Haymarket Affair, Labor Day was established in 1894 in the US on the first Monday of September with the support of the American Federation of Labor, in part to distance the labor movement from its more radical elements.
May Day continues to be celebrated around the world, and in the US, it has taken on special significance for immigrants’ rights activists. The convergence of the demands of workers for better wages and working conditions, and the demands of immigrants for dignity and freedom from the violence imposed by the immigration enforcement regime, is a fitting tribute to the role that immigrants have played in the labor movement in the United States.
The history of the labor movement is largely the history of human beings, living at the margins of mainstream society, uniting in solidarity, asserting their rights and fighting for a better, more fair world. It unfortunately remains true that racism, xenophobia and white supremacy redound to the benefit of those with economic and political power. From racist appeals to white supremacy that destroyed radical efforts during reconstruction towards true multiracial democracy, to the xenophobic red scare that followed Haymarket and the repression of the Black Panther Party, racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric represent not only an existential threat of violence for marginalized people, but also a powerful weapon used by the ruling class to undermine solidarity among working people.
Immigrants and marginalized people continue to be used as scapegoats for crime, poverty and other societal problems which can rightly be attributed to systems of exploitation that entrench privilege and power and not those oppressed by these same systems.
It is, in many ways, the time of monsters. The Trump presidency ushered in a new era of domestic repression of Black and Brown people and brought violent white supremacist rhetoric back into American mainstream political discourse. President Biden was elected with broad progressive support but has largely failed to roll back the worst Trump-era immigration policies. The COVID pandemic laid bare the harsh reality facing American workers, forced to risk their health and livelihood, often without adequate workplace protections, while America’s billionaires added nearly $2 trillion to their net worth. The United States continues to spend more on its military than the next nine countries combined while millions of its people are unhoused.
And yet, a new generation of the working class – union members and unorganized workers alike, students, LGBTQIA+ people, immigrants, Black, Brown, and Indigenous people – stands ready to meet this political moment and organize to demand a better future. Workers at the Amazon JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island recently won the first union victory at any Amazon facility, led by a Black supervisor who was fired after organizing a walkout to protest unsafe working conditions at the start of the pandemic. Activists throughout the state are mobilizing to shut down the ICE Processing Center in Folkston in solidarity with detainees on hunger strike in the facility. And here in Athens, a coalition of organizations are demanding Community Benefits Agreements for large public projects, and United Campus Workers of Georgia are campaigning for a living wage for UGA workers.
This May Day, let their struggles be our struggles. The only way forward is with solidarity, among the multiracial working class of the United States and workers of the world.