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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    A people’s history of May Day

    Typically, as far as pop culture goes, “”May Day”” translates as a threshold of yet another end of the school term. Still, to some, it evokes that romantic magnificence of maypoles which signify the onset of May or Midsummer .

    But to many others (just as well as to any of us), who inherit a rich and quite literally elaborate American history spanning over a century, “”May Day,”” or “”International Workers Day”” as it’s known popularly throughout the rest of the world, is a symbolic time to extend the knowledge of injustices overcome with those cruelties that have emerged in our own age.

    Author of the brilliant and groundbreaking work, “”A People’s History of the United States,”” historian Howard Zinn spoke with me this week from his Auburndale home in Massachusetts about the history and meaning of May Day. At the spry age of 86, the prolific writer and activist is, in person, a towering figure – something of a gentle giant, very kindly attentive to young people. Ironically, though unsurprisingly to someone of his estimable quality as a scholar, he speaks very admiringly of students in particular, describing them at one time during our interview as inherently having “”a kind of natural idealism and capacity for indignation”” who, when aroused by injustices of war, slavery and apartheid, “”rise to the occasion”” and often spearhead their abolishment.

    “”May Day originated in the United States in 1886 as a day to celebrate the struggle for the eight-hour day,”” Zinn reflected, with the day itself becoming “”an international symbol of workers’ solidarity all over the world (and of) worker’s rights.””

    “”Think back to 1886,”” he urged, “” … that last part of the nineteenth century, when corporations were growing more and more powerful … And workers were working ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day in factories, and mills, and mines.”” “”Particularly in the period, in the 1880s, workers decided they would have to win the eight-hour day by their own efforts, by direct action, by going on strike. And they did, they went on strike all over the country. And the result was, they did win the eight-hour day in many places at that time.

    “”It wasn’t written into law … until the 1930s, until the New Deal. But it was the unions, the strikers, who did it first. And so it’s very important to understand that May Day is a symbol of protest against terrible working conditions, and of workers’ solidarity to change that.””

    Isabel Garcia, co-chair of the May 1st Coalition, spearheaded by the local human rights group Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, told me in a phone interview that, however slowly, “”the population is becoming much more educated on the need for real social change”” by “”their own actions”” which go beyond conventional politics, when necessary. If Tucson’s own annual May Day march this morning – which begins at 10 a.m. at 3300 S. Sixth Ave., and culminates as a rally at Armory Park, downtown – is anything like recent years, hundreds, even thousands, of people will be coming out to voice a spectrum of demands. Among them, according to the May 1st Coalition literature, are calls to end the militarization of the borderlands and criminalization of immigrants, to guarantee economic safety and security for all people, as well as universal health care and education – all things which our Constitution avows as “”the law of the land”” but each of which notably are, in fact, withheld from most people by the government, as the wealth of the most exorbitant and militarized country on earth is squandered on apparitions of “”border security”” and the institution of permanent war.

    Reflecting on student/worker struggles, Zinn added: “”It’s very important to inspire a feeling of solidarity of people who have problems here with people who have problems in other parts of the world; to recognize that the world, though while it’s divided artificially on national and religious grounds, there’s a more natural affinity that takes place among people across these boundaries – people that have the same interests. Working people, students, who are in one way or another made the victims of injustice.””

    This was widely apparent during the ongoing UA/Russell Athletic scandal. I was present at two backroom meetings wherein President Shelton set aside 30 minutes at more than a week’s notice to meet with two Honduran union leaders. Yet he gave the Russell executives more than an hour and a half of his time at a day’s notice – demonstrating how much more in common

    Shelton has with corporation executives than he does with the victims of those corporations. More importantly, the flipside of this coin also shows how much more in common students have with factory workers than with our own university president.

    But what is it that has students so readily able to sympathize with the plight of drudging workers who, victimized by the factory owners, manufacture our proudly glamorous UA garments? After all, factory workers in Honduras, a “”third world”” country, and undergraduate and graduate students at an American university are, in a sense, as entirely unlike each other as cacti and coconuts.

    Nevertheless, students have shown they’re able to sense almost intuitively that, while being the working classes that operate the university – as undergraduates who make class happen because they submit to it, and the grad students who carry the burden of implementing, for the most part, the assembly line of university curriculum – their struggles are one in the same. Particularly in an educational “”fiscal crisis”” that has our president exclaiming, hand on heart and with the appearance of compassion on his brow, that we must play the “”game”” of jobs and careers (Wildcat, 04/09/09) and presumably bear down together before the brunt of “”permanent”” cuts this year, while enduring “”additional permanent cuts”” to come (Memorandum: “”Federal Stimulus Funding and the UA Budget,”” 04/03/09).

    Where might we find our place across May Day realities all over the world, when we now hear of students and faculty alike that are going on strike in Europe and all over the world – refusing to go to class, refusing to teach class – with slogans such as “”We Won’t Pay For Your Crisis””? Perhaps we might undertake the logic usually ascribed to dispassionate physics laws: if these education cuts are permanent, then let May Day be every day. The proper question remains: where do we take May Day from here?

    Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a junior majoring in art, literature and media studies. He can be reached at

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