Today is May Day! Also known as International Workers’ Day. May Day is considered an international labor holiday. This post highlights some of the materials in our collections related to May Day. Much of our May Day material can be found in the May Day, 1885-1986 folder in the vertical file collection, and the Haymarket folders in the Morris B. Schnapper collection!
May Day was created by a resolution initiated by American Socialists at the International Socialist Congress in Paris, France, in July of 1889. The purpose of May Day was to gain support for an eight-hour work day. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, precursor to the American Federation of Labor, and the Knights of Labor cooperated in preparing for a general strike in U.S. cities on May 1, 1886. And on that day, approximately 350,000 American workers went on strike, impacting over 11,000 businesses. Although workers in New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, and other cities participated, Chicago was widely considered the center of May Day agitation, largely due to Chicago being one of the few cities with broad union and radical solidarity in support of the eight-hour day.
The Labor Heritage Foundation (LHF), an Allied Group of the AFL-CIO, was founded in 1983 by Joe Glazer, Joe Uehlein, and Saul Schniderman. The non-profit strives to promote labor activism through a combination of music, arts, and culture. Donated to the University of Maryland in 2016, the LHF records document decades of labor activities and events including: correspondence with leaders in the labor movement like Pete Seeger and Archie Green, administrative documents, songbooks, photographs, and audiovisual materials.
On June 10, 2002, protesters marched down Constitution Avenue with signs reading “STOP ASHCROFT’S WAR ON IMMIGRANTS” and “ASHCROFT: WHERE IS THE COMPASSION?” These impassioned union members of SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 82 called for fair immigration laws and fair treatment of immigrants. This protest came in response to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s statement four days earlier:
“…arresting aliens who have violated criminal provisions of [the] Immigration and Nationality Act or civil provisions that render an alien deportable … is within the inherent authority of the states.” 
Ashcroft delivered this statement in light of the attacks on September 11, 2001, after which President George W. Bush’s administration tightened immigration restrictions in the interests of national security. Ashcroft called this policy a “new war [in which] our enemy’s platoons infiltrate our borders … The vulnerabilities of our immigration system became starkly clear on September 11.” Bush and Ashcroft’s critics, including the SEIU and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) accused the administration of conflating the War on Terror with a war on immigrants in the United States and treating immigrant workers unfairly.
Founded in 1921, the SEIU has a long history of organizing workers in the service industry, including many immigrants. The Labor Collections team selected a photograph from the SEIU’s June 2002 protest in Washington, DC for the exhibit display “Immigrants Get the Job Done” because the SEIU is historically active in support of immigrant worker’s rights. In the photograph, you can see a “Justice for Janitors” banner, referencing one of the SEIU’s most famous campaigns. The Justice for Janitors movement, mainly comprised of low-wage immigrant workers, uses methods such as civil disobedience, in order to achieve social and economic justice, including fair wages, improved working conditions, and better healthcare.
SEIU Local 82 marching against criminalization of undocumented immigrants, June 10, 2002. Photographer Bill Burke. Page One, Photography, Inc. Records. You can see this photograph in person in the exhibit “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” in person or online.
The rights of immigrant workers in the United States is not a new debate. For labor unions, immigrant labor was not always viewed as a positive contribution to the fabric of American society. Long before the formation of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) in 1955, major national unions adopted protectionist and often-racist stances against Chinese labor reminiscent of current rhetoric surrounding Mexican immigrant labor in the United States. Examining the correspondence of two national labor union leaders at the beginning of the 20th century provides context for the debate about immigrant labor in the United States.
On February 1, 1905, Samuel Gompers, the President of the AFL (American Federation of Labor) wrote to Frank Duffy, the Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBCJA), expressing his concerns that local UBCJA unions in Honolulu might support Chinese immigrant labor. He claims,
“My information is that several local unions in Honolulu … are endangering the policy of protection of the American workmen and Caucasian race, by allowing them to be induced … to favor modification of the Chinese Exclusion law.” (emphasis added)
Gompers was referring to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (renewed in 1892, made permanent in 1902, and repealed in 1943). The law prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers for 10 years and was the first law intended to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to, or becoming naturalized citizens of, the United States. Gompers saw the exclusion of Chinese labor from the U.S. Territory of Hawaii, which was not yet a state, as a cause for the labor movement, and even went so far as to describe Japanese labor as “evil.”
Portrait of AFL President Samuel Gompers, 1914, UBCJA archives.
Portrait of UBCJA General Secretary Frank Duffy, 1901.
The above images are available in Digital Collections: Gompers and Duffy.
Gay Student Alliance – The Gay Student Alliance (GSA) was established at the University of Maryland in the 1970s as the successor of the Student Homophile Association (SHA). This collection contains newspaper clippings and editorials from the Diamondback chronicling the campus response to the gay community during the 1970s.
“Since 1979, when the Gay and Lesbian Labor Alliance was formed, Nancy Wohlforth has been working to bring gay issues into the labor movement. Now the organization is called Pride At Work and is a full-fledged constituency group in the AFL-CIO. National cochair Wohlforth and the newly hired executive director, Kipukai Kuali’i, will fight for domestic-partner pension benefits, greater employment protection, and transgender inclusion. They also want gays and lesbians to understand the power and benefit of unions. ‘Frankly, a lot of people still see the union as a bunch of old white boys who want nothing to do with their interests,’ Wohlforth says, ‘clearly that’s not the case.’
-The Advocate on Nancy Wohlforth in the Best and Brightest Activists collection, August 17, 1999. Continue reading →
Pride at Work national convention poster by Ricardo Lewis Morales, Northland Poster Collective, San Diego, 2006. Pride at Work Records.
In honor of Pride Month, we are featuring items from the Labor Collections at Special Collections and University Archives that highlight the role of the LGBTQ+ community in the labor movement. This particular item will be on display in the upcoming exhibit, “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” opening October 2017. LGBTQ+ people of all types are involved in every aspect of labor, although labor unions ignored or excluded them until recent decades. The Pride at Work poster calls attention to the role the diverse LGBTQ+ community played in American history and American labor history and demonstrates a reversal of labor union policy towards LGBTQ+ people.