> May Day 2009: San Francisco

In San Francisco there are at least two ironic aspects to celebrating the first day of the fifth month, May Day, as International Worker's Day. One is the way it has always been treated as somewhat of an embarrassment or poor relation compared to Labor Day in the US, the same country that inspired linking May Day with honoring labor. The other is that the modern celebration in this city emphatically embraces diversity and ethnic inclusion but in the 19th-century the San Francisco labor movement was as much about racism and keeping certain people "in their place" as it was about worker's rights. *** May Day was officially designated International Worker's Day in Paris, France, at the Second International in 1889. So why May Day? A few years earlier, in 1884, at the convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, it was resolved that May 1, 1886 would be the target date to start the implementation of the eight-hour workday. Three days later on May 4, 1886, a confrontation in Chicago between police, pro-labor protesters and anarchists, eventually dubbed the "Haymarket Riot," resulted in the death of eight police officers and numerous civilians. In honor of these two events, May Day was officially proclaimed at the Second International as International Worker's Day. *** Meanwhile at about that same time in San Francisco, perhaps the most active of the West Coast cities involved in the labor movement, the move to create unions and trade guilds was only partially about bettering the conditions of the working class. It was also just as much about excluding non-white workers, mostly Chinese and Japanese immigrants, from entering more lucrative skilled trades. It was a deliberate and unabashed attempt to make sure that the good jobs were reserved for white folks and everyone else got the low-wage jobs. Labor actions at that time were often associated with brutal racial attacks against Asian immigrants and arsons against their properties. *** On May Day of 2009, thousands of people defied the rain and the fear of spreading swine flu to march from Dolores Park in the Mission district to the Civic Center in honor of International Worker's Day. *** Barbara Lopez, spokesperson for the May First Organization, who organized the San Francisco march, estimated there were at least 60 different organizations involved. Her union, SEIU 1021, represents non-profit workers, city janitors, school district employees and the like. "Basically we're the backbone of the working and lower-middle class. We're the largest union in San Francisco" said Lopez. The difference between the old racist S.F. labor movement and today, she said, was "because immigrants are a large part of the unions. The majority are legalized but we don't want to forget our brothers and sisters who are dying in the fields. We don't want to see corporate bailouts. We want to see a stronger social safety net and we support the democratization of the unions." *** Kendra Froshman, of San Francisco Pride At Work, a queer youth organizing project, said today's unions are "a diverse group of folks. It's people from different countries. You know this whole 'we are the union' sort of thing means that it's not white people at the top (that are) making decisions anymore. It's workers that are making decisions so by that very nature it's going to be more inclusive. But that said, I know that the international and national unions still need to be pushed about their immigration reform work and they're still not totally there about total utilization."