Social Justice

Happy May Day!

Here’s to fair working conditions for all. Read More

By / May 1, 2014

Today is May Day, a celebration of summer and flowers and maypoles… and workers’ rights, natch. Confused? Let’s back up a little: the origins of May Day—like those of all good holidays—are Pagan. Traditionally in Europe, May 1 has marked the beginning of summer, and for a very long time people have celebrated the day with all sorts of nature-oriented festivities—picnics, romping in the fields, dancing around maypoles, donning flowers, crowning a May Queen, etc.

As Europe became Christianized, so did the holiday, but the date took a revolutionary turn in 1886, following the American general strike in support of the eight-hour work day, and the subsequent Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. Writes Judith Rosenbaum at the Jewish Women’s Archive:

Workers across the country rallied on May 1, and in several cities with active labor organizations protesting continued into the following days. In Chicago, a city with a large immigrant and anarchist population, violence erupted on May 3rd, when police opened gunfire on the striking workers. The following day, as laborers gathered in Haymarket Square to protest the police shootings, a bomb was thrown into the meeting and the ensuing gunfire killed seven police officers and at least four workers. With no conclusive evidence of who threw the bomb, anarchists were blamed; a show trial jury found eight guilty and sentenced seven to death.

The Haymarket massacre, as it came to be known, not only sparked the new commemoration of May Day as International Workers’ Day; it also awoke many people to the injustices around them. Emma Goldman attributed her own political awakening to the Haymarket affair, calling it in her autobiography “the most decisive influence” on her life.

So, May Day and the Jews and the labor movement: what’s the deal?

Well, here’s a ridiculously brief summary of an illustrious history: between 1880 and 1924 two million Jews emigrated to the U.S., and many of them became factory workers. They formed some of the largest unions and produced some of the labor movement’s most influential leaders, including Samuel Gompers, Bessie Abramowitz and Sidney Hillman (who announced their engagement on May Day; the proposal story to end all proposal stories!), Rose Schneiderman (who was instrumental in helping to institute reforms following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911), and Morris Hillquit. Oh, and that career Betty Friedan abandoned, which led to her disillusionment with domestic life, which led to the writing of The Feminine Mystique, which led to second wave feminism? She worked as a journalist for left-wing/labor publications, including the United Electrical Workers Union.

But wait, there’s more! Fifty years ago today, a rally in New York City launched the American movement to free Soviet Jewry, and the choice of May Day was no coincidence. Writes Rafael Medoff for JNS.org:

In April 1964, after reading reports in the press about the mistreatment of Soviet Jews—including the Kremlin’s refusal to allow Jews to obtain matzahs for that year’s Passover holiday—[Jacob] Birnbaum and [Morris] Brafman decided to call a meeting on the campus of Columbia University to brainstorm about the situation. Glenn Richter, a Queens College sophomore, was one of those who attended.

Richter told JNS.org that about 150 students attended that meeting—a surprisingly large number, considering the Soviet Jewry issue was almost completely unknown at that point. “It was an amazing scene, kind of electrifying,” he recalled. “We had the indignation of college students, we were outraged over an injustice and anxious to do something.” One of the students suggested they hold a rally outside the Soviet Mission to the United Nations, on Manhattan’s 67th street, on May 1—just four days away… Birnbaum was instantly attracted to the rally proposal because of the symbolism of holding it on May Day—the international holiday of the Communist movement. Rebuking the Soviets on their own holiday was exactly the kind of irony that he believed would attract public and media attention. And he was right.

More than a thousand people attended the protest, which was covered in the New York Times and marked the beginning of the public movement for Soviet Jewry.

So happy May Day, everybody. Here’s to justice, equality, and fair working conditions for all.

(Image via Library of Congress: Two girls wearing banners with slogan “ABOLISH CH[ILD] SLAVERY!!” in English and Yiddish. Probably taken during May 1, 1909 labor parade in New York City.)