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May Day: A Festival of Solidarity
Posted on May 4, 2011
By Scott Tucker
May Day is a celebration of working-class solidarity that grew out of the struggle for the eight-hour workday at the end of the 19th century. For well over a century, workers of all parties and tendencies of the left have participated in May Day marches around the world.
An immense May Day march took place in Los Angeles in 2006, when Latino immigrant groups and labor unions mobilized to oppose H.R. 4437, titled “The Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005.” It was more commonly known as the Sensenbrenner Bill, after a chief sponsor in Congress, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a Republican.
Police assaults on workers and marchers at the 2007 May Day rally in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles resulted in a further protest march and in legal suits against the police department.
In 2008, the Longshore and Warehouse Union called for a May Day strike, refusing to move cargo in West Coast ports as a protest against the Iraq War and the diversion of public funds away from social needs and services.
This year, the May Day march in Los Angeles was notably smaller than in recent years, but still lively and militant. The year-by-year count of May Day marchers can never be an exact science, but the history of labor is full of surprises. Currents of working-class discontent deepen in times of relative quietude, and then break out again in storms of public protest. Immediate threats, such as the Sensenbrenner Bill, were well publicized through the Spanish radio stations of Los Angeles in 2006, and young Latino students carried the message throughout the schools of the city. In big election years, the labor unions with closest ties to the Democratic Party also organize with greater drive and discipline.
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Once again, dancers in Mayan and Aztec robes and feathers were dazzling. The Queer Contingent carried its own banner and dozens of rainbow flags. Various affinity groups performed skits and street theater along the march route, beginning at Olympic and Broadway and ending with a rally near City Hall at First and Broadway. The anarcho-syndicalist contingent proudly flew the half-red, half-black flag associated with the libertarian left, and especially with the anarchist workers and fighters of Spain. Leninist groups and parties passed out their papers and programs. Democratic socialists mixed and mingled throughout the march among the labor unions and civic groups. At one corner you might find an anarchist punk rock band, and at the next a sweet couple holding a sign reading “Make War Against Wage Slavery.”
Good Jobs LA, a coalition of labor unions and activists, was well organized and stayed on message, directing .reporters to designated teams of spokespeople. Their leaflets noted that Wells Fargo had avoided paying $555 million in taxes, enough money to “restore all planned cuts in California’s in-home care services for the sick.” As the same leaflet said, “General Electric got a $1.3 billion tax cut. That’s enough to pay the salaries of all 19,000 public school teachers facing layoffs because of the state budget crisis.” Both corporations eliminated many thousands of jobs, with GE cutting 32,000 jobs since 2006.
I asked Marissa Ruiz, a Good Jobs LA spokeswoman from the Service Employees International Union, Local 721, about the main message of the coalition.
“Corporations and CEOs are taking advantage of workers, especially low-wage workers,” she answered. “They are relentless, they are stripping workers of all the rights and benefits we fought for over the years. So today we are marching in solidarity with all working people, regardless of whether you belong to a union or not, and regardless of whether you are a documented or undocumented worker.”
When I asked Ruiz if Good Jobs LA had a political strategy to keep the Democratic Party accountable to workers and labor unions, she answered, “We are turning out in the streets to keep them [Democratic leaders] accountable. Talk to friends and co-workers and neighbors. Raise your voices!”
Organized labor is in big trouble in this country. In the 1950s, 30 percent of American workers belonged to labor unions. By 2000, that percentage had dropped to 12 percent and has been fluctuating near that level ever since. The official unemployment rate reached 12 percent earlier this year in California, but even that number is too optimistic because the counting system is based on people collecting unemployment benefits. We have no definite count of those who cannot even collect such benefits, so the number of those out of work and near desperation is certainly higher.
Home foreclosures wiped out one version of the American dream for many first-time homeowners. But the biggest cause of personal bankruptcy in this country is our lack of a rational health care system for all, because a single bad accident or a chronic disease can mean both medical and financial disaster.
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