May Day is International ‘Thank a Worker’ Day

“As far as I’m concerned, those people don’t exist.”

— Arizona Republican Governor Jack Williams, telling farm workers they’d be arrested if they were to strike and boycott during harvest seasons (May 1972).

For Migrant Workers, Still the Harvest and the Shame - The Atlantic

May Day harkens back to celebrations of spring, a renewal and fertility. In Rome, I witnessed one such event: the festival of Floralia, where people wear colorful clothes and were pelted with beans and flowers (fertility symbols).

Floralia - Celebrating the Goddess of Spring — Celebrate Pagan Holidays

I was in Edinburgh and celebrated their May Day around a bonfire: The Celts welcomed spring during Beltane by lighting bonfires or the ‘fire of Belt.’ My partner and I even danced around a Maypole and watched the crowning of a May Queen.

However, my most meaningful celebrations for May Day tie into my family’s union roots. This day is about workers’ rights, which should be embedded in everyone’s blood in this country, post-COVID and with the growing gap between those who have and those who do not.

I’ve worked with Portland warehouse workers as their case manager, and many of them I met were either in mini-vans or broken down RVs. These are workers toiling 10 or 12-hour shifts. Some had two jobs just to make ends meet, sleeping in vehicles.

Going back 170 years, the eight-hour work day movement fanned across the world, aiming to reduce the working day from 10 to eight hours. In 1886, the first congress of the American Federation of Labor called for a general strike on May 1 to demand an eight-hour day, which culminated in what is known today as the Haymarket Riot.

On May 3, 1886, one person was killed and several others injured as police intervened to protect strikebreakers and intimidate strikers during a union action at the Chicago McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. It was part of a national campaign to secure an eight-hour workday. Then, a day later, anarchist labor leaders called a mass meeting in Haymarket Square to protest police brutality.

It was a peaceful gathering, even by Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison’s observation. But after Harrison and most of the demonstrators departed, a large group of police arrived and demanded that the crowd disperse. A bomb was thrown by an individual — never positively identified — and police responded with random gunfire. Seven police officers were killed and 60 others wounded before the violence ended; civilian casualties have been estimated at four to eight dead and 30 to 40 injured.

See the source image

Employers regained control of workers, and 10 or more hour workdays became the norm again.

My May Day March participation includes Tucson, El Paso, Mexico City, Spokane, Seattle, Portland. I’ve marched with day laborers in Oregon demanding higher hourly pay, and I’ve marched with nuns, priests and other clergy in El Paso demanding worker rights for immigrant farm workers.

May Day for me is about that American sacred right to protest, right to free speech, and the right to gather and call out the powerful, the elite, the bosses.

Of course, I was always aware of heavy police presence, always aware of the negative mainstream media coverage.

May Day protests turn violent in downtown Seattle

Today, as Starbucks and Amazon workers are voting for unionization, many Americans are oblivious to the degradation of the workplace and the lack of real opportunities for young people to find gainful, sustainable and worthy employment.

Young and old — many with college degrees, and many with huge student loan debts — are finding a collective voice in setting up unions in order to demand fair wages, safe work environments and an end to the boss lording over their lives.

When I was an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, Local 925-Seattle, my work was around adjunct faculty. I had been a freeway flyer. I worked in Washington, Texas and Oregon as a part-time faculty. Low wages, countless hours of unpaid work (I was an English faculty so essays and tons of other writing assignments I took home for weekend reading/commenting/grading blitzes), no benefits and no guarantee of work semester to semester resonated with me.

I always saw myself as a worker, not as some professor or multiple college degreed highfalutin elite. Part of my work was with students of migrant farm worker parents, as well as organizing service workers — CNAs and others laboring as caregivers.

We Fought and We Won for Seniors, People with Disabilities, and their Caregivers | by SEIU Local 2015 | Medium

Many of my union brothers and sisters were from Somalia, Eritrea and Mexico. Working for pay on 24-hour shifts, these amazing immigrants were both first and last line of defense for aging and dying-in-place clients.

I talked to one terminal white woman, Gloria, who was in a foster care facility at the tune of $4,600 a month. She told me that her main caregiver, Mehret from Eritrea, not only bathed, fed and took her to doctor’s appointments, but Mehret celebrated Gloria’s birthday with her own Eritrean family, and even had Gloria come to her extended family’s gatherings.

“I will die with Mehret by my side. My own children haven’t seen me in a year. They pay for this care, but have no interest in an old cranky dying mother. Mehret is my only friend, my only family.”

Mehret got $12 an hour, and she had to pass dozens of classes to keep up her credentials. Many of Mehret’s family members were harassed by Seattle police and other law enforcement agencies for “driving while black.”

We need more labor history, more media coverage of workers, and more Americans pushing for the 8-8-8 day: eight hours of work, eight hours with family/community, eight hours of sleep.

If you haven’t already read the book, then check out Dr. Rupa Marya and Raj Patel’s Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice.

It’s all about how Americans are working themselves to death. Literally. Unions can stop that. Happy May 1!

++Note: Appeared first in Newport News Times, April 29, 2022!++

And a side note — try and catch Johnny Depp (yes, that fool) in the movie, Minimata, about Chisso factory and the mercury poisoning of Japanese, young and old and fetuses.

See the source image

At the end of the flick, you get a short run down of the industrial “accidents” that killed thousand immediately and then many others through time.

Fifty years after American photographer W. Eugene Smith first arrived in the Japanese port town of Minamata, the fight for recognition and compensation still continues, for scores of people poisoned by mercury dumped into the bay by a local factory.

Aileen Mioko Smith, Eugene’s Japanese-American wife and collaborator, hopes that the September screening of the film Minamata will once again shine a light on the case, which was one of the worst industrial pollution disasters in Japanese history.

Nearly half a century later, victims of the mercury poisoning are still trying to obtain full restitution from the national government, although 2,265 people, 1,784 of whom died, have been formally recognized as victims of the disease. In 2004, Chisso also paid compensation totalling $86 million (€70.7 million).

“There are 10 ongoing lawsuits against the prefectural government in Kumamoto and the national government,” said Smith. “These are people who were toddlers 50 years ago when they were exposed to this pollution. They have gone through the lower courts and some of these cases are now before the Supreme Court, but I do not think we will have a final decision before the end of this year.”

“The government has always refused to carry out a full epidemiological study of the impact of the poisoning, and that can only be because they do not want to know,” Smith added. “So these are people who have lived with this their whole lives, and they are still fighting.” (Source)

Here we go, more disasters of capitalism. Who pays the price? Workers, and those living around or near those facilities, or sometimes, those living and working thousands of miles away:

Bhopal memorial for those killed and disabled by the 1984 toxic gas release. (Credit: Luca Frediani)

Bhopal

An abandoned school in Pripyat, Ukraine

Chernobyl

Dark clouds of smoke and fire emerge as oil burns during a controlled fire in the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: Public Domain)

BP Oil Spill, Gulf of Mexico

weather, london

1952 London Great Fog

A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas in April, 1935. (Credt: NOAA/MCT/MCT/Getty Images)

Dust Bowl 1920s-’30s, USA

For more on the “films” depicting corporate wrong-doing, go to the book, Corporate Wrongdoing on Film: The ‘Public Be Damned’ by Kenneth Dowler, Daniel Antonowicz

Fukushima, anyone?

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster – Jennifer Straka

And the workers helping release those millions of gallons of radioactive water? How will they be treated? Consequences? And us, the global citizen? Did we vote on this?

In April, the Japanese government announced its formal decision that the treated water stored at the Fukushima Daiichi site will be discharged into the sea. Japan intends to start releasing the treated water around the Spring of 2023, and the entire operation could last for decades.

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.