May Day has now come and gone. The big marches and the spontaneous protests and the insurrections of “Real Labor Day” are more than a week old now. But that does not mean that the struggles of working people are over… not in the least.
What began as a day to remember an American tragedy and travesty morphed into an international day of action largely ignored in the United States. Until recently, May Day was marked mostly by old Marxists. Latino immigrant rights groups took it up in recent years, turning May Day into a rallying day for the Dream Act, an end to repression and deportations, equal treatment under the law, labor rights and recognition, and other causes. This year, Latinos were joined by the Occupy movement and organized labor in a major way around the country. It looks like May Day is back in a real and powerful way.
During my first year at Hampshire College, Professor Eqbal Ahmad told his story of coming from Pakistan to the United States as a young man and searching all over Chicago for the memorial to the people killed at Haymarket Square in 1886.
As activist-historian Lawrence Wittner describes what happened in May of that year: “Protests erupted all across the United States, with some 340,000 workers taking part. An estimated 190,000 went out on strike.” The issue was the eight-hour work day, or as the workers sang, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!”
In Chicago 80,000 workers stayed off the job, joining massive (and peaceful) marches that wound their way through the Windy City. But, a few days later, with thousands of Chicagoans still on strike and still in pen revolt, locked out workers at the McCormick Harvester plant were fired on by police and workers were killed. Another protest was called for the next day — May 4 — at Haymarket Square. Three thousand people gathered, and into their midst someone threw a bomb. The police blamed anarchists. The protesters pointed at agents provocateur. To this day, the culprit is not known. What is known is what happened next: Into the middle of this chaos, terror and throng, the police opened fire. Police and protesters alike were killed and wounded.
When the smoke cleared, prominent radical labor activists were arrested for the killings. Most were not even at the rally. Four were eventually executed.
Until my Pakistani professor told me, I had never heard of any of this. My parents were activists, but not labor activists. In fact, they were both happily, radically, revolutionarily under-employed throughout my lifetime. They admired Mother Jones, Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, and they knew their labor history, but somehow I missed the rocking-chair lectures on Haymarket and the eight-hour day. Professor Ahmad had not. He grew up going to massive May Day marches and demonstrations in his native Lahore and wanted to see the monument to the workers who died in the bombing, to those framed and unjustly executed. He wandered all over Chicago with a bouquet of flowers, looking for the monument, only to eventually find a bronze statue of a Chicago policeman erected in the middle of Haymarket Square in 1889 by the Union League of Chicago.
Eqbal Ahmad told this story at a 1968 demonstration in Chicago. A few days later, he was questioned by the FBI on his own doorstep. The Weathermen had blown up the statue.
Since then, new monuments to the workers have been erected, but it is emblematic of how little labor history is taught in U.S. public schools that I first learned of this sad and shameful episode in American history from a Pakistani college professor, not my sixth grade history teacher.
This just reminds me how ignorant we often are of the struggles of working people in different parts of the globe, even parts of the globe where our country is intimately involved. War Resisters League organizer Ali Issa, for instance, has published a groundbreaking interview with one of the most prominent union organizers in Iraq, Hashmeya Muhsin al–Saadawi. She is the president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union in Iraq, and the first woman vice-president of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers in Basra. The interview offers us an all-too-rare opportunity to hear an Iraqi voice speaking on the impact of U.S. war and occupation and now (partial) withdrawal on Iraqi culture, society and politics.
Ms. Al-Saadawi describes the rule of Saddam Hussein as a “repressive, all-encompassing” dictatorship that went on for three decades bringing “great suffering to Iraq and the entire region.” She continues, “We wanted to get rid of this regime, but not through war and occupation. Because all the occupation did was bring new pain.”
Few people in the United States know that before the 1987 imposition of harsh anti-union laws, Iraq had a vibrant and powerful organized labor movement. That labor movement is now rebuilding and reasserting itself in Iraq as it tries to put decades of war and occupation behind it.
Ms. Al-Saadawi relates in the interview how the union suffered under Saddam and under U.S. occupation. “After [the Saddam Hussein] regime fell,” she says, “the workers quickly put together unions in the public sector, worked very hard, but faced many agendas the U.S. occupation brought with it. The occupation launched several consecutive attacks against the union movement.” Not only were union headquarters destroyed by U.S. bombs, but the “occupied” parliament froze union bank accounts and declared that anyone organizing in the public sector could be charged under anti-terrorism laws. Not exactly the so oft and loftily promised Western-style democracy.
In the wake of the withdrawal of most combat forces, the Iraqi labor movement is churning ahead. “The General Federation of Trade Unions in Iraq launched a campaign to pass a labor law that is fair for workers and that matches work standards and international agreements,” says Ms. Al-Saadawi. “Most recently, the electrical worker unions in Basra launched a campaign called ‘Social Security is the Right of Every Iraqi’ relying on constitutional rights, which is supported by some international friends, the Federation of Unions in Holland being one of them.”
The interview goes on from there, and I highly recommend a close reading of it.
In the meantime, let us all consider how we can live in deeper and more meaningful solidarity across national borders, language barriers, religious divisions, class caste systems and the other things that keep us from working together for fundamental rights. And let us sing, as the workers in Chicago sang 126 years ago:
We mean to make things over; we’re tired of toil for naught.
But bare enough to live on: never an hour for thought.
We want to feel the sunshine; we want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure that God has willed it, and we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from shipyard, shop and mill;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!
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