All posts by S. Finch

International Workers’ Day then and now

2000 to see international actions against capitalism

This May 1st, thousands of activists in dozens of countries are expected to simultaneously disrupt business as usual in what could be the largest international anti-capitalist mobilization in years. Following in the afterglow of Seattle, and coordinated by a loosely knit coalition that staged over 100 simultaneous protests in over 40 countries against economic globalization last June 18, the global mobilization includes a call for a General Strike on May Day, which falls on a Monday this year. In San Francisco, planning is underway for a creative, colorful and effective action against the capitalist forces which are destroying the earth’s environment and emiserating workers both here and abroad. Across the US and around the world, the days leading up to May 1 will feature a rich quilt of anarchist and workers picnics, forums, gatherings and the like.

Every year, May Day, known as International Workers Day in many countries, commemorates the historic struggle of working people throughout the world for liberation and justice. Ironically, in its place of origin, the United States, May Day has little or no significance to people in their everyday lives.

Many think May Day has something to do with the changing of the seasons and can conjure up vague visions of Maypole celebrations happening in a pasture somewhere in Europe. Some think it has to do with celebrating a season of fertility and rebirth. (This is Beltane the festival of fertility in many earth-centered religions). For others, it brings to mind extravagant military parades past the Kremlin celebrating Red power-a Communist holiday.

Most of us educated in state run schools have never heard a word about May Day and its origins. Even a chapter devoted to labor history and the labor unions is a rare occurrence. In fact, the events of May Day and the execution of the Chicago anarchists, spokespeople of the movement for the eight hour workday, mobilized many generations of radicals and continues to reverberate today. Emma Goldman, in her autobiography, Living My Life points to the Haymarket massacre as her political birth.

It all began over a century ago when the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1st 1886.” With workers forced to work ten, twelve, and fourteen hours a day, support for the eight-hour movement grew rapidly. In the months prior to May 1st, thousands of organized and unorganized workers, members of the Knights of Labor and of the American Federation of Labor, were drawn into the struggle.

In Chicago, the main center of agitation where the anarchists were in the forefront of the labor movement, 400,000 alone went out on strike for the 8 hour day. In the months leading up to May 1, two anarchist labor organizers, Albert Parsons and August Spies addressed crowds of thousands, making themselves the targets of the newspapers who called for “a communist carcass for every lamp post”.

Seeing class struggle and the strike as its most powerful weapons, the AFofL demanded an eight hour work day as a means of organizing the nation’s workers into a fighting force. Despite fierce resistance by industrialists, the press, and other contending forces within the labor movement, most working people supported the eight-hour day and were prepared to walk out for it.

On the morning of May 1, 1886, armed Pinkertons, militia and national guard were ready to put down what they thought would be a workers insurrection. However, all this preparation for violence was a waste of time -a parade and festivities took place without any trouble.

Two days later, at another meeting of striking workers outside the McCormick harvester plant, things were just breaking up with about 200 people remaining when police charged in and started shooting workers in the back as they tried to flee. Outraged by this vicious police attack, Albert Parsons circulated a flyer calling for a meeting at Haymarket Square in Chicago.

The crowd for the demonstration was larger than expected. After beginning to disband because of a storm that was brewing, the police started marching on the crowd. Suddenly somebody in the crowd threw a bomb at the police, killing seven.

Although it was never determined who threw the bomb, the incident was used as an excuse to attack and scapegoat anarchists and the labor movement in general. In the middle of a police reign of terror, union leaders and suspected radicals were randomly arrested without charge-”make the raids first and look up the law afterwards.” Anarchists in particular were harassed and eight of Chicago’s most active were charged with conspiracy to murder in connection with the Haymarket bombing. The martyrs, all anarchists-Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe-were found guilty despite a lack of evidence connecting any of them to the bombing. Neebe received 15 years while the others were sentenced to die. The day before the execution date, Fielden and Schwabs’ sentences were commuted while 21 year old Lingg committed suicide by using a dynamite cartridge which he placed in his mouth before lighting the fuse. As an anarchist, he did not recognize the right of the state to take his life and therefore decided to take it on his own.

On November 11, 1887, known the world over as “Black Friday” by anarchists, Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and Engels stood on the gallows. Under his hood, Spies spoke his final words, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voice you strangle today.”

In 1888, the AFL set May 1st, 1889 as a day of action for the eight-hour day. The following year, the newly formed International Association of Working People voted their support, and workers all over Europe and America demonstrated by holding meetings and parades to celebrate the eight hour workday. This was the birth of the International May Day, still celebrated all over the world.

Despite its setbacks in the U.S., May Day is still embraced by millions of workers in every country of the world as a day to raise class demands and show the strength of the working class as a whole. Why not reclaim May Day as our own, and reject the government milk sop “Labor Day” way off in September, with which workers have no connection.

It’s hardly a shock that the state, capitalist leaders and media would want to keep the true history of May Day hidden from the people. After all, it is an opportunity to show that the conscious organization of the working classes is a potent revolutionary force, the thought of which has haunted bosses and the ruling classes the world over. By reclaiming May Day for the workers of today we are reminding the ruling elite just how very vulnerable they really are.

Today more than ever, there is a need for a universal day of rage and hope and solidarity. May Day is that day.

A Defining Moment

Thousands head to Seattle to shut down World Trade Organization summit

\”We are no longer writing the rules of interaction among separate national economies. We are writing the constitution of a single, global economy.\” – Renato Ruggiero, former Director-General of the WTO

Thousands of activists from around the world will gather November 29-December 3 in Seattle to stage massive protests against the largest trade gathering ever held on US soil. The World Trade Organization, an international trading body with the authority to enforce legally binding agreements and mediate disputes over trade barriers, will be holding a ministerial summit to determine the WTO\’s agenda for the coming decade. Everyone from steelworkers and AIDS activists to Zapatistas and radical environmentalists are gearing up to march, protest, educate and organize to ensure the anti-democratic forces of globalization are thwarted. \”This is the time to really draw a line in the sand and say this the largest and most influential corporate gathering of the millennium, and it is not going to happen.\” Said John Sellers, director of the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society.

Since its inception four years ago, the power of the World Trade Organization has grown rapidly, evolving into a bureaucracy of such size and power that it now determines whether national laws on such matters as environmental protection and food safety violate international rules. The WTO is a powerful global commerce agency, one of the main mechanisms of corporate globalization. While its supporters say it\’s based on \”free\” trade and contend it promises economic gains for member countries, in fact, the WTO is designed to create a system of managed trade that leaves no room for human concerns. The WTO is systematically gutting worker, consumer, and environmental protections, and trying to deprive individual countries of the right to make their own laws – especially when those laws might conflict with trade. Under this system, economic decisions are made with the private sector in mind rather than the social and environmental costs.

Often referred to as \”neoliberalization,\” this system undermines environmental rules, health safety and labor laws to provide transnational corporations with an increasingly cheap supply of wage laborers and natural resources. As trade has expanded over the last 25 years, the median wage in the U.S. has actually fallen. There is no doubt that increasing trade and falling wages are related. As American workers compete with workers around the globe in countries without any standards for labor or human rights, trade creates a \”race to the bottom\” for wages and working conditions.

For example, if the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) wants to regulate gas content in order to reduce air pollutants, it must be careful that these decisions don\’t impinge on the plans of foreign producers. This became a reality when the government of Venezuela, on behalf of its gas producers, challenged EPA regulations on gasoline quality at the WTO. In 1997, the WTO ruled in their favor. The EPA subsequently changed its regulations, weakening its ability to enforce federal air quality standards.

The WTO and other international trade agreements such as NAFTA override national, state and local laws, particularly on environmental and labor issues. Rulings by trade tribunals have weakened efforts to use the Marine Mammals Protection Act to save dolphins from tuna nets and the Endangered Species Act to keep giant turtles from shrimp nets. What\’s to stop a DDT producing nation from challenging EPA regulations regarding pesticide usage. Where does it end? It doesn\’t.

The good news is that by all accounts so far, demonstrators will outnumber the 5,000 delegates and trade envoys from the 150 countries planning on attending the Seattle Round. The number of people becoming aware of this event and its ramifications continues to grow. According to Michael Dolan, working on behalf of the Citizens\’ Trade Campaign that represents over 700 international groups, the events will be \”…historic…the confrontations in Seattle will define how the bridge to the 21st century will be built and who will be crossing it-transnational corporations or civil society.\”

Organizers are predicting that the protests will bring 100,000 people into the streets. Motel rooms and meeting spaces are already booked as well as most flights to Seattle. Steelworkers have already reserved 1,000 hotel rooms in Tacoma and Bellevue and Longshoremen say they are bringing 3,000-5,000. The AFL-CIO has dispatched two full-time field organizers to coordinate a massive march and rally set for November 30. There is rumor of a procession of tractors from farm groups like the Northern Plains Resource Council and the Campaign to Reclaim Rural America. Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth are mobilizing their memberships. Labor representatives from India, militant anti-capitalists from Germany and AIDS activists are all making plans including forming a human chain around the Washington State Trade and Convention Center in downtown Seattle where the WTO will be held.

The Agenda

Several interests and agendas are being brought to the table at the Seattle meeting; however, there are three main sets of issues to be discussed by the trade ministers. The first one includes reviews for past agreements such as agriculture and intellectual property, the second will discuss whether there should be future negotiations concerning agriculture and services. Lastly and most importantly is the question of whether a new set of issues will be moved under the control of the WTO, namely investment and regulation of competition policy which would expand the power of the WTO even further.

Steelworkers Butt Heads with the WTO

More than 10,000 workers in the US steel industry lost their jobs this year when U.S. factories started laying off workers in response to an increase of imports from Japan, Russia, and Brazil. This import increase was partly caused by the WTO\’s \”sister\” organization, the infamous International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF urged countries to increase their exports to the U.S. as a way to get out of the financial straits they were in as a result of past IMF policies. The United State Steel Workers of America joined with steel industry leaders to ask the President for emergency relief. However, Clinton said he would not offer any help because WTO rules don\’t allow such an action.

WTO and the environment

The Clinton administration\’s biggest concern at the meeting is making sure they get the \”global free logging agreement\” signed. This agreement would expand world consumption of paper, pulp, and other wood products by almost 4%. By getting rid of tariffs on forest products it could also pose a threat to endangered forests and biodiversity. The passage of this agreement could also threaten important environmental legislation that the WTO considers \”barriers to trade\” such as a ban on the export of raw logs from most public lands which was created to protect endangered forests.

The worldwide challenge to the WTO and its policies reflects a growing recognition from civil society that the decisions of this powerful institution have a huge impact on our lives and livelihoods. The Seattle Round of the WTO offers a unique opportunity to organize in our own communities, build alliances with other groups affected by corporate globalization and help to create a sustainable anti-trade movement in the United States. Remember, the trade ministers and corporate heads won\’t consider how people will be affected by their actions. They don\’t have to – they are generally accountable to no one.

The time is now. Take action! Join the thousands of activists taking to the streets of Seattle for direct action and demonstrations. Only a massive worldwide outcry against the agenda of the WTO can stop the effects that the liberalization of trade will have on world populations. Stop the WTO and its regime intent on setting the rules of exploitation and the spread of global capitalism. Spread the word about the WTO. Some members of the labor community are urging that people pressure local officials and congress members to oppose the launch of a new round of WTO talks in Seattle and to propose an assessment of its affects to date before they commit further atrocities.