May Day: The History of Immigrant Organizing

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In the immigrant rights movement, May 1 has become a day to celebrate and honor our heritage and our personal fight to be recognized in the U.S. I became involved in the fight in 2006 when coordinated action took place all over the country, and millions mobilized in response to the passage of the Sensenbrenner Bill, that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants and anyone who aided them. I was very young and I honestly didn’t know the issue very well. I just knew that I was hungry to get involved and finally found a way to plug in. It wasn’t until 2007 when I started organizing in Miami at Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER) and the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC).

This was when I started understanding the history May Day. Today is actually International Workers’ Day and its origins are rooted in a long history of immigrant organizing. Near the end of the 19th century, workers began organizing to finally get 8-hour shifts. At that time, working people were dying or getting injured at their workplace without any recourse, and their shifts lasted anywhere between 10 to 16 hours per day. Many of these workers were immigrants and they rose up against the ruling class of their time demanding justice and dignity.

Labor unions, socialists, and anarchists declared May 1, 1896 as the beginning of the 8-hour workday. More than 300,000 workers walked out to strike all over the country. In Chicago, an additional 100,000 joined the fight through the next few days. On May 3, violence broke out and more than 40 people were injured and at least 7 were killed by police.

The official story is that the violence was initiated because a bomb was thrown at the police. However, many people speculate that an agitator working for the police threw the bomb. It’s important to mention that poverty and exploitation was/is perhaps the greatest level of violence inflicted on millions of people in the U.S.

These courageous workers are the reason we have 8-hour workdays. Whether you march today or simply go to work remember that May Day is a day to celebrate the victories of the past and to demand for more. We deserve to work and live with dignity in the U.S. Unfortunately, this country’s legacy of exploitation is still prevalent today.. History has taught us to fight for our rights and to continue the process of expanding these rights. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize in this pivotal moment in history by participating in solidarity with other struggles and pushing for a just immigration system. Organizing and bold action is our only way to build a better world.