By Mike Rhodes
May 1 has always marked the coming of spring: a time of rebirth and new possibilities. For more than a century, May Day has been known as International Workers Day, a day where the 99%—workers throughout the world—have united to fight their common exploitation by the 1%.
The origins of May Day lie in the revolutionary year of 1886 when a wave of mass strikes— focused on the fight for an eight-hour day—surged across the heartland of America. The American Federation of Labour had adopted a resolution stating that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1st, 1886.”
In Chicago, more than 100,000 workers struck. There, during a demonstration on May 3, a crowd confronted strike-breakers leaving the nearby McCormick factory, chasing them back inside. Without warning, police opened fire on the crowd, killing four and seriously wounding many.
The following day, a rally was called at Haymarket Square to protest the police violence. The mayor was in attendance, and the crowd debated how to continue their strike. As the meeting was winding down, a group of 180 police stormed in and ordered everyone to disperse. A bomb was thrown toward the police line. Who threw it—whether protestor or provocateur—has never been determined. As the bomb exploded, chaos descended. One police officer was killed, and many others were injured.
The police opened fire on the crowd, killing dozens. A police dragnet swept the city. Eight revolutionary labor leaders were arrested, seven of whom had not even been present in Haymarket at the time. In the absence of any evidence linking them to the bomb, the “Chicago Eight” were tried solely on the basis of their political beliefs. All eight were sentenced to death.
Several years later, in honor of their slain comrades, a coalition of workers’ groups declared May 1st International Workers Day. Ever since, people around the world have come together on May Day to remember the sacrifices of those who have struggled before us, to defend the gains they made and to discuss the way forward to a better world for the 99%.
May 1, 1968—Paris
The dust was still settling from the March 22 student occupation of the University of Paris at Nanterre. Civil and student unrest were bubbling up across the world. The authorities were discussing how to manage the growing industrial strikes and the emerging conflicts with students at Nanterre. No one knew that the very fabric of French society was about to explode.
It all happened quickly: May 1968 was totally unplanned and unexpected. On May 2, the administration decided to shut down Nanterre, and within a week tens of thousands of university and high school students were confronting the police on the streets of Paris: the police in full-scale riot gear wielding batons and tear gas and savagely beating students, the protestors throwing rocks and burning cars in defense. The protestors gained mainstream support in Parisian society and called a general strike for May 13. It was a historic day—a million people marched, the prisoners were released and the Sorbonne was occupied!
A wave of mass strikes and worker occupations immediately followed. The strike lasted weeks, involving 11 million workers, nearly 66% of the workforce and 22% of the population of France. Striking students and workers refused negotiation, putting forward broad and radical platforms for the transformation of modern society.
For a week in May, the city and its surrounding area were controlled by the workers themselves. The old guardians of power and authority looked on helplessly as workers took control of their own lives and city. On May 24, road blocks were set up around the city as farmers made a protest of solidarity with the workers and students.
French society was on the brink of collapse; President de Gaulle fled the country and the remaining ministers secretly counted the days until the full-scale revolution would topple them. With the military surrounding Paris, de Gaulle dissolved the parliament and called for new elections. It was a stroke of strategic brilliance, ending the revolution nearly as quickly as it had begun. The remaining protestors could sense their betrayal, dawning the slogan “Elections are a con.”
Perhaps the most striking element of the May 1968 revolution was the symbolic occupations that occurred in three distinct realms of Parisian life: education, work and culture. The student occupations of both Nanterre and Sorbonne united them with student uprisings around the world in the 1960s; it was a global uprising that signaled a young, militant, discontented youth. The workers of May 1968 took occupation and self-management to a new level. At its peak, 122 factories were occupied by workers, without the consultation of union officials. The cultural occupations symbolized by the occupation of the Odeon Theatre took the revolution to the sphere of cultural expression and production: Parisians fought for sexual rights, individual freedoms and the rights of women and homosexuals.
To this day, May 1968 represents one of the most powerful historical critiques of capitalism, imperialism, consumerism and the foundations of representational democracy. The general rebellion of May 1968 took as its task no less than the rethinking of all social relations, the reshaping of politics and the liberation of a whole society from the shackles of capitalism. As they declared in 1968, “We don’t want to be the servants of capitalism.”
May Day in Fresno
The May Day Committee for Immigration Reform is asking supporters to come out to the streets on this historic date in unity and to continue the struggle for immigration reform, a stop to deportations and the separation of families, no to the implementation of unjust anti-immigrant laws and car impounds and equal rights for all immigrants and their families.
The May 1event will start at 2 p.m. at Courthouse Park in downtown Fresno. There will be a march starting at 6 p.m.
In another May Day action, Occupy Fresno has announced that they will foreclose on the Chase Bank at First Street and Shaw Avenue. That event will start at 5:30 p.m. on April 30 and continue until closing on May 1 or until they shut down the bank.
According to Occupy Fresno organizers, this action is in solidarity with other Occupy groups who are also holding direct actions targeting banks around the nation. They plan to surround the bank in crime scene tape, post foreclosure notices on the bank and fire the bankers handing them pink slips. This action includes a temporary move of the Occupy Fresno encampment from Courthouse Park to the Chase Bank.
The group’s goal is to bring awareness to the foreclosures and fees and crimes that the big banks have done. They are asking people to move their money from the big banks to a local credit union.
What can we learn from history?
The progressive inclusion of voices and segments of the 99% in May Day demonstrations indicates a profound shift in the struggle for a better, more equitable world. It serves as an important historical message that the 99% is not only the worker but also all those displaced, mistreated and exploited by a vicious and cruel economic and political system: students, immigrants, the unemployed, the invisible, the homeless, women, the LGBT community, precarious workers, the incarcerated, etc.
Reading May Day’s history in 2012 makes it clear: The 99% is just that—99% of us who suffer while the 1% prospers. May Day 2012 is a day that the 99% steps onto the stage of history, declaring from Fresno to New York and from Cairo to Durbin:
We are all workers
We are all immigrants
We are all the 99%
And we demand a better world for all.
Note: Major sections of this article were found at www.maydaynyc.org.
Mike Rhodes is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.