May Day, May Day: From Haymarket to the “Day without Immigrants”

Posted by Cutler on April 29, 2006
Immigration, Labor / 2 Comments

Here is a Q & A I did for NPR on the legacy of Haymarket, May Day, and Shorter Hours:

Q&A: The Legacy of Haymarket

Jonathan Cutler is Associate Professor of Sociology and American Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He is the author of Labor’s Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism. Here he answers questions from on the ramifications of the Haymarket riots. You can read more of his current affairs commentaries at

What is the legacy of Haymarket? Does it still resonate today?

Haymarket resonates today more than it has at any other time in recent years. The original Haymarket affair of 1886 was part and parcel of a massive, national May Day rally and strike led, by and large, by America’s immigrant workers. Today, precisely 120 years later, the May 1, 2006 Immigrant General Strike — also known as the “Day without Immigrants” and the “Great American Boycott” — looks set to inherit and reinvigorate the legacy of Haymarket. Then, as now, employers launched an aggressive drive to undermine wages and living standards. In 1886 workers from around the world responded with an aggressive campaign of their own: an international movement for less work and more pay.

What is most misunderstood about the labor movement… historically and today?

Today it is easy to misunderstand the relationship between immigration and the labor movement. The unruly nationalists of basic cable talk tough about immigration and America’s “broken borders” in the name of defending working-class America. They hurl insults on the awkward coalition of Big Business interests hungry for cheap, docile labor and pro-immigrant progressives who favor free and open borders.

Today, anti-immigrant nationalists seem to speak truth to power because they insist that flooded labor markets benefit employers at the expense of employees. In the era of Haymarket, however, the May Day demand for shorter hours provided an acid test for differentiating labor’s true friends from the misleaders of labor.

In the time of the Haymarket affair, anti-immigrant nationalists sowed the seeds of chauvinism through labor market exclusion; shorter-hours activists sustained a vision of solidarity without borders. Where employers expected docile immigrant bodies, immigrant activists responded with May Day militancy. Today, immigrants rights activists have broken decisively with employers and reinvigorated the tradition of May Day militancy.

What’s the difference between May Day and Labor Day?

In almost every country around the world, May Day is the principal workers’ holiday. It is a day of strikes, rallies and demonstrations, often linked to demands for shorter hours. Within the international labor movement, the May Day protest tradition got its start in the United States. Today, however, the United States is the great exception to the May Day tradition. Our end-of-summer Labor Day holiday was developed as an official government alternative to the labor movement’s May Day rallies. One central difference: May Day has always been linked to the demand for less work and more pay; Labor Day celebrates the “dignity” of work.

How have American attitudes toward labor evolved since the Haymarket riot?

Most people in the United States seem to think of organized labor as a strictly blue-collar affair. Likewise, the Haymarket riot is viewed in nostalgic sepia tones. The labor movement, according to this viewpoint, had its place in the 19th and early 20th century when workers were exploited and abused in the furnaces of industrial capitalism but has no place in the high-tech, white collar world of the new economy.

The irony is that the issue at the heart of the Haymarket affair — the hours of labor — is now quite significant in the white collar world. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act established the 40-hour workweek as the legal norm and imposed over-time pay requirements on employers for all work in excess of 40 hours. Hourly wage workers get extra pay for extra time. Most white collar work is exempted from the law. As a result, the pressure on the white-collar work week has grown tremendously in recent decades.

If there is anyone who needs to attend to the spirit of Haymarket, it is the American white-collar professional who works 10 hour days, including many weekends, and who has fewer paid vacation days than other white-collar professionals around the world. Annual hours of work in the United States are now longer than any other industrialized country in the world.

What do the recent labor protests in France illuminate about the American labor movement?

There are some very significant parallels between recent events in France and those developing in the United States. In France, there were enormous immigrant protests in late 2005. The demands of the protesters were quite similar, in many respects, to those articulated by immigrant rights activists in the United States.

At the time of the 2005 protests, employers in France thought they might be able to use the immigrant protests as an excuse that would allow them to undermine French job security protections. The most recent labor protests were a reaction to this government initiative. The protesters succeeded in defending job security protection.

In the United States, there were similar suspicions that employers might use the immigrant rights rallies as an occasion to establish a “guest worker” program as an alternative to amnesty and full citizenship. The May Day Immigrant General Strike contradicts that notion. Like their counterparts in France, immigrant workers in the United States — through their demands for amnesty and full rights — have rejected employer efforts to use immigrant workers to undermine U.S. labor standards.

How will the labor movement factor into the ongoing immigration debate? Can the two issues be separated?

Until recently, it has been common for labor leaders to justify their failure to organize immigrant-intensive industries with the claim that low-wage undocumented workers were difficult to organize. The wave of protests that started on March 25 in Los Angeles defy that rationalization.

Some unions are quite animated by the immigration debate and have mobilized members to action, but have weighed in on the side of anti-immigrant nationalism. Other unions, especially the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), led by Andy Stern, seem interested in building bridges between immigrant communities and organized labor. Still, for some reason, many SEIU locals have shown only lukewarm interest — if not outright hostility — toward the May Day strike. Immigrant workers are proving themselves to be more militant than the official unions. Organized labor has some catching up to do.

What are the biggest challenges facing the labor movement today?

The biggest challenge is putting the “movement” back in labor. Of course, there are economic obstacles. But the real and unprecedented crisis is organizational, not economic. Back in the Haymarket era, labor activists were scrappy fighters and labor unions were nimble and responsive. Today, labor has formal rights but no soul. There is “organized labor” — a big lumbering bureaucracy with lots of large buildings in Washington — but precious little in the way of labor movement.

How do you see those challenges being resolved? What do you see as the next step for the labor movement?

There is hope on the horizon, although it may be difficult for some to recognize at first. In 2005, the labor movement split into two rival labor federations. One is the old AFL-CIO, led by John Sweeney, and the other is the new “Change to Win” federation, led by Andy Stern. Sweeney and Stern each have their defenders and detractors, but many labor activists argue that labor as a whole is injured by a divided house of labor.

It is worth recalling, however, that the great Haymarket battle occurred in the context of a long-term rivalry between the pre-cursor of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its primary challenger, the Knights of Labor. The Knights are usually thought of as the more militant organization, but this is not entirely true. The Knights of Labor were initially hesitant to embrace strike tactics or to press for shorter hours. Fearing the loss of members to the AFL unions, however, the Knights eventually embraced both shorter hours and May Day strikes. The competition between the AFL organization and the Knights forced the two organizations to bid for the support of rank-and-file workers and led to an upward spiral of demands, centered on the idea of shorter hours.

Today, the “Change to Win” federation, like the Knights of Labor, is usually thought of as the more militant organization. However, the apparent refusal of SEIU and “Change to Win” to endorse the “Day without Immigrants” raises serious questions about that assumption. Is “Change to Win” willing to confront employers on behalf of undocumented workers? Immigrant rights activists may have to find ways to exploit the rivalry between the AFL-CIO and the “Change to Win” federation if either organization is going to play a productive role in the burgeoning immigrant workers movement.

The immigrant workers movement is leading the way by summoning the American labor movement to revisit its own May Day protest traditions.