May Day: Marching in the Footsteps of Chicago Immigrant Workers

As millions of immigrant workers with their families and supporters pour into the streets across the United States on May Day, they do so under a new cloud of fear. In 2006, the fear that drove people into the streets on May 1 and the preceding two months was the threat that the “Sensenbrenner” Illegal Immigration Control Act (HR 4437), passed by the House of Representatives on December 16, 2005, would criminalize undocumented immigrants. The May Day marches of 2006 effectively stopped HR 4437 in its tracks.

This year in 2007, the fear is surprise raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that are terrorizing hard-working undocumented immigrants who have no criminal history. The ICE raids have broken up families, and too often have inadvertently turned children who were born in this country into orphans. The raids have equally terrorized family members who are undocumented immigrants, legal residents, or US citizens.

Another fear they have in 2007 is that the new immigration reform laws being introduced in Congress will create a legal underclass of workers on temporary visas, so-called “guest workers.” One new bill being offered as a carrot to the more than 12 million undocumented workers in the United States is the STRIVE Act (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act – HR 1645) introduced by Congressmen Luis Gutiérrez and Jeff Flake. Unlike HR 4437, HR 1645 would provide a path to citizenship, albeit a very long and tortuous one involving four stages: a two-year security waiting period, a six-year wait on a temporary work visa, a minimum five-year wait as a permanent resident before applying for citizenship, and finally the processing queue for citizenship. Most importantly, the STRIVE Act continues to stress border security over immigrant worker security. The temporary work visas for low-skilled jobs would make “guest workers” vulnerable to abuse by employers, a pattern that is widespread among temporary foreign workers in the oil-exporting Arabian Gulf countries.

Thus, the importance of May Day 2007 for immigrant communities in the US is not only of demanding fundamental constitutional rights for immigrants, but for economic rights as immigrant workers. It was chosen because May Day is a living tradition in the Latin American countries from which most of the undocumented immigrants in the US come. May Day is also an international day of labor solidarity.

May Day itself was born, in part, out of fear of police raids on immigrant workers. In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, predecessor of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), called for an eight-hour workday. When implementation appeared unlikely, a general strike was called in Chicago on May 1, 1886. On that day, some 80,000 workers marched down Chicago ’s Michigan Avenue in what is generally recognized as the first May Day parade. In the succeeding days, supporting strikes broke out in other cities, such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and New York City.

On May 3, four striking workers were killed by police at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. At an evening rally on May 4 in Haymarket Square, called to protest the killings, police moved in to disperse the crowd when a bomb went off, killing seven policemen. Police retaliated by firing into the crowd of workers, killing and wounding an unknown number of civilians.

Determined to crush the labor agitations, police interrogations and arrests went on through the night and the ensuing days. Homes of workers, most of whom were immigrants from Europe , were raided in the middle of the night. Hundreds of immigrants were rounded up without charges. A police rein of terror descended on the organized workers of Chicago and their families.

Eight people, including five German immigrants, were eventually charged and convicted for the deaths of the policemen, even though no evidence was ever presented directly linking them to the bombing in Haymarket Square. Four of the defendants were publicly hanged in 1887.

In Paris in 1889, the International Workingmen’s Association (Second International) called for worldwide demonstrations on May 1, 1890, commemorating the struggle of Chicago workers. The international tradition of May Day was born.

It took another three decades for workers to incrementally win the eight-hour working day through struggles with individual companies. Finally, the Adamson Act was passed by Congress in 1916, establishing a statutory eight-hour working day for railway workers with additional pay for overtime work.

Today May Day is traditionally celebrated in most industrialized and developing countries around the world as International Workers’ Day. Among major nations, the United States is the only one to have successive governments and the trade union bureaucracy consistently resisting recognition of May Day, fearing the connection with labor movements around the world. Seeking an alternative date, Labor Day was created to recognize the contribution of American workers on September 5, 1882 in New York City. In 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as a holiday from labor. However, it was not until 1894 that Congress made Labor Day a national holiday. But without the heritage of strikes and labor struggle, Labor Day emerged and remained a completely depoliticized day.

In contrast, May Day, because of its deep roots in US working class struggle, is richly symbolic of labor activism. Contrary to popular myth in the US, May Day did not originate abroad, but rather from the very US trade union movement that brought about the basic eight-hour working day that is taken so much for granted today. From the struggle against a guest worker program that would create a stratum of second class workers to opposing the ICE police raids, the immigrant workers’ rights movement of today is following in the footsteps of the heroic Chicago workers who gave birth to May Day. May Day is a true American immigrant worker tradition. Now being revived after 70 years of dormancy, it is gradually regaining support among established labor unions that a slowly coming around to back the movement for immigrant workers’ rights.

Sharat G. Lin is president of the San José Peace and Justice Center. He writes on global political economy, the Middle East, India, and public health. He lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and spent time in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Captured by a Palestinian militia in 1973, he has first-hand experience of their internal workings. Read other articles by Sharat.

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  1. stephan geras said on May 3rd, 2007 at 7:20pm #

    The debate about “immigration” is hot right now but I’m trying to compose a cool level-headed essay. Briefly, I take issue with the popular misnomer “immigration rights” for undocumented workers in the USA; more accurately these are migrant workers. Secondly, all workers, whether citizens, documented residents or migrants should be guaranteed job safety, workmen’s comp, 35-40 hour workweek with overtime, paid sickleave and maternity leave and a wage commensurate with living standards in the USA. That’s where rights end for undocumented workers. It’s illegal to work here without permission and people who come here to make as much money as they can to enrich themselves elsewhere where the standard of living is far lower, without participating in any way in the social, cultural and political life of the land they emmigrated to, those same people trample on the won rights of workers here, namely the right to a living wage. Yes, the contrdictions inherent in this capitalist imperialist system drain workers of power and rights and suck the life out of work integrity. But that’s not a problem for those who want to get a piece of that american candy made sweeter artificially; among those who flood the work market illegally, there’s zero concern for the draining of wholesomeness that results from blatant abuses of labor rights. Perhaps the debate should be about labor rights and protections, not “immigrant rights”.