May 1 is May Day. A national holiday in more than 80 countries, it is a celebration of workers’ and labor rights. Most people don’t know that this international holiday has its origins in los United States. In May of 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, there was a peaceful rally in support of workers who were on strike and fighting for an eight hour workday. Police were trying to disperse the protestors when someone threw a bomb at them. The cops then began shooting into the crowd killing demonstrators and even some of their own officers. May 1 became a commemoration of those who died at Haymarket and a celebration of the international labor movement — it was named International Worker’s Day.
You might be wondering, why don’t we have May Day off from work? It’s a simple answer. In 1887, because of the involvement of several socialist organizations in creating the holiday and to avoid any links to communism, U.S. President Grover Cleveland, moved it to September and labeled it Labor Day. But, those in the know haven’t forgotten the significance of this day.
In 2006, immigration activists organized the “Great American Boycott” on May 1. On this day, undocumented immigrants were urged to avoid working, attending school, and buying anything. May 1 was chosen to highlight the connection between workers’ rights, immigration policy, and its effect on the U.S. economy.
Here are two movies to commemorate this important day in American history.
Bread and Roses
Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Pilar Padilla, Adrien Brody, Elpidia Carrillo
Production Year: 2000
In honor of May Day watch Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses, based on the real life Justice For Janitors campaign in 1990. The campaign organized a strike of non-union janitors (mostly undocumented immigrants) in downtown L.A. The film tells the story of two sisters, Maya and Rosa, who work cleaning offices in a large building, are constantly mistreated by the bosses, and are ridiculously underpaid. In a chance meeting, Maya comes across a young union organizer named Sam, played by Adrien Brody. He convinces her that she should organize the workers in her building to join a union.
Switching between English and Spanish and using humor and a tender love story to get his point across, Loach was able to make a movie that doesn’t preach and that entertains. It is sympathetic but realistic, pointing out the contradictions that exist when trying to rally workers against their bosses. The danger of losing their jobs and the ability to support their families is too high a price to pay for many of the workers. It is a film that is just as relevant today as it was when it was released more than a decade ago.
If you don’t mind watching a dubbed version it’s on YouTube in Spanish. And while you’re in the labor organizing mood watch this classic…
Salt of the Earth
Director: Herbert J. Biberman
Starring: Rosaura Revueltas, Juan Chacon, Will Geer
Production Year: 1954
“Director Herbert Biberman’s prescient drama incited a furor upon its release with the political overtones in its story about the Mexican-Americans who went on strike to protest unsafe conditions and unfair treatment at New Mexico’s Empire Zinc Mine. Presaging the civil rights and feminist movements, the 1954 film — the only one blacklisted in American history — paints a thought-provoking picture of the struggle by the miners and their families.”