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Philadelphia May Day event

04.23.08

May Day event
By John Oliver Mason
April 21, 2008

A movement is growing to recognize the American origins of May Day as a workers’ holiday. On May 1st, there will be a community celebration of May Day at Elmwood Park, 71st Street and Buist Avenue in South West Philadelphia.

In this event, students from the Tilden Middle School, located near the park, will come over and listen to the speakers and the music, provided by the rock and roll band Unskilled Labor. There will also be a monument to Organized Labor and its struggles inaugurated at the park; tables commemorating such famous Labor struggles and heroes as Eugene V. Debs, Karen Silkwood, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, will be placed in the park.

Leading the effort for May Day in Philadelphia is Jim Moran, a veteran labor activist who recently retired as Director of the Philadelphia Area Project for Occupational Safety and Health (PHILAPOSH). Before, Moran worked to develop an annual Labor Day parade and celebration in Philadelphia, saying, “I spent years working on Labor Day, and (the Labor day parade in Philadelphia) is about twenty years old.”

Of his work for May Day, Moran adds, “We’ve been robbed of our history. It goes back to 1886, with the AFL calling for a national strike for the eight-hour day.” The average working day at that time, says Moran, was up to fourteen and sixteen hours a day.

“In the Chicago area,” says Moran, “four men were shot to death on the picket line by the police. They went out on May 1, and on May 3, there were these killings on the picket line. On May 4, a rally was called at the Chicago Haymarket, and thousands came to the rally, and as it began to break up, two hundred police showed up…Someone, who remains unidentified, threw a bomb and a policeman was killed. The police opened fire, and shot a couple dozen people, killing many of them, (including) several policemen as well, caught in their own crossfire. In 1889, at an international Labor convention in Paris, the AFL had a delegate who urged them to adopt a proposal that May First be set aside as an international day to honor all workers, specifically the eight Haymarket Martyrs. After that so-called riot in the Haymarket, they rounded up a lot of Labor leaders, and eight were singled out and prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to be hanged. Four were hanged, one committed suicide to cheat the hangman, and the three that remained were later pardoned as were the whole eight by the governor of Illinois.

“Workers here have not been told” the true story of May Day, says Moran, “not through the history books. Most working people don’t realize that May Day originated in the United States, that it really is our day, and we should be a part of it, and we should join hands with workers all over the world and show international solidarity. We haven’t done that, and very few towns in the United States do anything on May Day, although there are several that do.

“A number of us (Philadelphia union activists) got together,” adds Moran, “and decided we should revive May Day. We’ve been working at this, meeting and organizing for the last two years,” Last year, adds Moran, the May Day activists joined with mushroom workers in Kenneth Square, Chester County, “ all of whom are Mexican,” he says. “They have demonstrations on May Day, because they’re used to that in their own country. Many countries outside of the United States have activities on May Day to honor (workers),. They do it in Kenneth Square, it’s done in Patterson, New Jersey, it’s done in Chicago, but there’s nothing done here (in Philadelphia).”

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