The Union forever defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters
From many far off lands
There is power in a Union
-Billy Bragg, “There Is Power in a Union”
The First of May is a moment to remember who makes society turn. It’s not for condescending politicians to tell us how much they appreciate us, nor for the executives and financiers who own them to throw us a bone of appreciation for our hard work. International Workers’ Day, or May Day, is for the oppressed and exploited working class of all nations, to remember its power, celebrate its gains, mourn its dead, and fight like hell for the living and those yet to come.
It is a day that the mainstream of the American labor movement left aside in favor of a day of barbecuing in September, a marker of when school starts up again and little else. Deprived of its historical force and the memory of those who sacrificed so much for our rights, it fades into the background. If we are ever to have peace on this earth and a society fully unshackled from servitude of one person to another, it will be when the unfulfilled promises of May Day are realized as the core values of a new world, when the working class comes to power and lives in harmony with the Earth.
May Day shot back into the American political consciousness for a time, even if it has yet to fully pierce the mainstream again, in 2006. A draconian immigration measure known as H.R. 4437 (Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005) was debated in the House of Representatives. The bill would have criminalized aid to undocumented immigrants, increased border wall protections, and mandated E-Verify for employers. In response to its debate and passage in the House, undocumented activists mobilized massive waves of protests in major cities all across the United States. After weeks of sustained protests, a massive outpouring culminated on May 1st, 2006 in “El Gran Paro Estadounidense” (Great American Strike), otherwise known as “El día sin inmigrantes” (The Day Without Immigrants).
The bill failed in the Senate. Though some of its policies would later see implementation under the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations (particularly the expanded role of DHS and ICE, and an overall increase in annual deportations), the protests signaled both a new wave of Latino activism and a resurgent significance of the holiday for the political Left.
May Day has always carried this dimension of immigrant rights to some extent. The workers who made up the labor movement of the 1880s to the 1920s hailed often from Eastern Europe and other regions. And our union, the Industrial Workers of the World, an organization oriented toward shaping a new and better world (one it called “The Cooperative Commonwealth”, a version of socialism), found some of its largest bases in itinerant, migrant workforces in agriculture, textiles, and lumber yards.
We live in a very different world from that of the turn of the 20th century. Globalization has accelerated the development of a truly international capitalism, one that has developed hard, often militarized borders to control the ebbs and flows of international migration. Vast inequalities between nations hold steady, and increasingly large swathes of migrants are fleeing climate catastrophes, social violence, and economic stagnation to work menial labor jobs in the industrial core.
But the immigration “crisis” is not what the growing voices of ultranationalism would say, that immigrants are coming in droves to overwhelm the social welfare system of developed nations. Rather, the crisis is a moral one, where a vast underclass labors in the shadows of prosperity, excluded from major institutions, culturally maligned and racially subjugated, denied citizenship and the right to participate in politics. Refuge is sought not simply from some generalized disaster, but from the particular policy decisions of the US federal government and its business lobbyists. The scale and quality of this system of legal segregation is, in my eyes, comparable most immediately to the social system that dominated Southern politics since Reconstruction: Jim Crow.
“Just as the United States couldn’t have Jim Crow apartheid and Bull Conner police departments and still call its political system liberal and democratic, it can’t have a shadow class of more than 10 million disenfranchised residents, filling some of the country’s most essential jobs, living in fear of an unaccountable immigration enforcement bureaucracy, and still be considered an open, free society.”
This system is not merely unjust, it is also one that divides the solidarity and coherence of the working class. Native-born workers are regularly pitted against their immigrant counterparts; we are told that immigrants will steal our jobs, undermine and steal from our welfare systems, sexually harass and assault “our women,” etc. It’s the language of hucksterism and confidence tricks, to distract from the robbers who take from your pocket every day at work, at home, and in the halls of government. And it’s the playbook of the defenders of apartheid.
May Day is a celebration of workers, of our historic mission to democratically govern this earth and end the exploitation we live under, and of the end to the national divisions and bigotry that prevents a common humanity from emerging. This is more than a hope; it is our guiding light and our program, the underpinning of every task we take on to make this vision a reality. Today, we can remember our past, reflect on the present, and feel inspiration to fight for a peaceful future for the many generations that will hopefully follow us.