By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
May 1 is recognized internationally as International Workers Day or in some cases, May Day. May 1 is also Labour Day in several countries including Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela.
May 1 as International Workers Day is recognized as the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. On May 1, 1886 workers in Chicago held a parade and rally with over 80,000 participants as part of a national strike for an eight-hour work day. According to the Massachusetts American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO): “Over 65,000 workers rallied again in Chicago on May 3. This demonstration, like those two days earlier, advocated for workers’ rights and was completely peaceful. Eventually a large group of police officers arrived at the location. They drew their weapons and charged the workers. As the strikers tried to flee the scene, police opened fire. The shots struck men and boys in the back while they attempted to escape. Six were killed in the brutal police action, and many suffered serious injuries. The next day 3,000 people came together in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to protest police violence. Several speakers voiced their disgust at the actions of Chicago’s police force. The demonstrators were not alone as 180 police officers were on the scene, standing in military formation. After several speakers, the police drew their batons and demanded that the demonstrators disperse immediately.”
Stories abound that an agent provocateur planted in the workers’ ranks threw a bomb at the police which gave them the excuse to attack the workers. When the dust cleared on the May 4 debacle, there were seven police and four workers dead while 70 workers and 60 police were wounded.
Eventually eight labour activists were put on trial for the “Haymarket Riots”. The trial lasted from June 21 to August 11, 1886 and seven of the men were sentenced to death by hanging while one was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On November 10, 1887 the sentence of two of the men was commuted to life in prison, one of the remaining five condemned men committed suicide later that day and on November 11, 1887 the four remaining men were hanged. This is what is commemorated on May 1 as International Workers Day or Labour Day.
As a child growing up in Guyana, May 1 was more than Labour Day and a celebration for workers. There were Labour Day parades but that was not interesting for children. Dressed in our new, special for May Day clothes, we gleefully danced around the Maypole during May Day celebrations as we plaited the colourful ribbons attached to the Maypole.
The crowning of the May queen was also a part of the celebration which was replicated across the country in various community centres. Surprisingly, I can remember feeling very proud and pleased looking at the Maypole after we finished plaiting as I saw the intricate pattern we had formed on the pole with the brightly coloured ribbons. The plaiting of the Maypole and the crowning of the May queen are part of the pagan spring rites from the British Isles that became part of British Guianese culture and subsequently Guyanese culture. So in Guyana May Day was also a day when the descendants of enslaved Africans and the descendants of indentured labourers imitated the antics of their former colonizers.
May Day in countries where it is observed as Labour Day, usually is a public holiday to honour workers and celebrate the social and economic achievements of the labour movement. Britain is said to have the oldest trade union movement in Europe, supposedly beginning in the 17th century with the organizing of workers in skilled trades like printing. The idea apparently gained momentum in the early 18th century with more categories of skilled workers, including tailors, shoemakers, weavers and cabinetmakers.
Of course, none of these workers saw the irony of them fighting for improved working conditions and wages while the enslavement of Africans was a British institution. Similarly, in Canada, where the first trade union was founded by printers in Quebec City in 1827, White men organizing for better working conditions and wages did not see the irony of keeping a whole group of people working without pay. (Slavery was a Canadian institution until August 1, 1834.)
In the United States, where slavery was abolished on January 31, 1865, with the passing of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Mechanics’ Union Trade Association organized skilled workers in 1827. White workers were so incensed at the idea of Africans competing with them for jobs that there were several incidents of African-Americans being lynched and their homes burned.
One of the worst cases occurred over a three-day period from May 1 to May 3, 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee. In his 1988 book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Eric Foner, a White American historian, wrote of the Memphis Massacre: “It is difficult to say which proved more threatening to local Whites – the large number of impoverished rural freedmen who thronged the streets in search of employment or the considerable group that managed to achieve modest economic success.” (Many of the African American victims were robbed of cash, watches, tools and furniture.)
The many documented sources of this period of domestic terrorism against African-Americans emphasize that the victims of these crimes could not expect any help from the White, mostly Irish, police force whose members were, in many cases, also the perpetrators. On May 3, 1866, in the aftermath of the Memphis Massacre, it was documented that White Americans had raped and murdered many African-Americans, and destroyed four churches, 12 schools and 91 homes of African-Americans.
There are fewer recorded incidents of White Canadian workers murdering African Canadians and burning their homes. However, what they may have lacked in quantity, the Canadians made up for it in quality. Beginning on July 26, 1784, African Canadians in Shelburne, Nova Scotia were attacked and had their homes destroyed by their White neighbours. Those who managed to escape the 10-day reign of terror by fleeing to nearby Birchtown, were still the targets of attacks from the White mob, which continued the racially motivated attacks up to one month later.
In his 1976 published book The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone 1783-1870, White Canadian professor James W. St. G. Walker writes about the plight of African Canadian David George who fled to Birchtown: “Along with others of his colour, George sought refuge in Birchtown, but even here they were unsafe. While the force of the riot continued in Shelburne for at least 10 days, incursions into Birchtown were reported for up to one month.”
The attacks were blamed on the inability of White men to compete with African Canadians in the job market as employers could exploit the Africans by paying them less than the White men were willing to take as wages. Whether in Canada or the U.S., these attacks were erroneously called race riots when White people attacked communities of Africans. These were not “riots” because one group with superior numbers and weapons was bent on eliminating another group based on skin colour.
Competing for jobs may have been used as an excuse but these were racially motivated attacks on clearly outnumbered and vulnerable African communities. If the White people were interested in fighting for jobs, they should have recognized that who they needed to fight were those who could withhold employment or exploit their labour. The Africans in their midst were not in positions of power and were also being exploited by those who held power.
The labour movement and worker solidarity has come a long way since those days when Africans in North America were brutalized and murdered because they dared to seek waged employment. Today, Africans in North America are members of unions alongside White co-workers.
Unfortunately although racialized workers pay the same union dues and should have the same access to services and leadership roles in their respective unions, this is not the case. It continues to be a struggle for Africans and other racialized people in the labour movement; hence the need for organizations such as Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU,) Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA) and Latin American Trade Unionists Coalition (LATUC).
While working in unionized workplaces may offer more security for racialized workers than in workplaces where workers are not organized, racialized workers sometimes do not have the same access to services from their unions as White workers do.
Looking at the leadership of the labour movement, from the individual locals to the national bodies, it is quite obvious that we still have a long way to go for equity and equality in the labour movement. We need Employment Equity as much as we need Pay Equity!