labor protest - photo by Susan Fried

OPINION: Reclaiming the History of May Day

by JM Wong


On this year’s May Day, as we grieve and witness the calamity of state-sponsored or state- manufactured violence; the premature (because utterly preventable) COVID epidemic deaths raging from India to Brazil due to fascist governments more invested in power than people; and the unceasing state lynchings from Columbus, Ohio to North Carolina and Seattle, Washington — we need the memories that Lucy Parsons bequeathed our struggles for which this day, International Workers Day, was created.  

Lucy Parsons should be a household name at any May Day celebration. She had a vision of freedom for the working classes who had been made by histories of colonialism, slavery, settler violence, and migration. Her vision challenged the internationalism of capitalists who professed a right to universal exploitation while creating borders and racial systems to divide those they exploited or killed. Today, Parsons’ erasure is part of the whitewashing of labor history in the United States that abets American empire. Remembering her is a reminder that she and so many others, even in the belly of the beast, left us the foundation and resources for a workers’ internationalism that revokes capitalist claims to exploitation and reconstructs our global connections for the purposes of shared freedom.

Parsons (1851–1942) was a deeply respected Black anarchist in the radical labor movement in the turn of the 20th century. A descendant of slaves and a founding member of the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Parsons was outspoken against lynching and slavery in the South and organized in defense of the Scottsboro Boys in the early 1930s. “I am an anarchist,” Parsons proclaimed in an early speech, characterizing her politics as defiant of oppressive political rule. Her legacy unearths a vision of labor history that is intertwined with resistance against white supremacy, that had not yet succumbed to the white nationalism and xenophobia of other labor formations of her time, most notably the Knights of Labor. 

The Haymarket Massacre, the precursor to International Workers’ Day, was an important event in Parsons’ life. The massacre erupted a few days after the May Day general strike in 1886 in Chicago, where the demand for “eight hours of work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will,” was met with police violence. The protest broke out into violent confrontation between police and labor organizers. Seven police officers and eight civilians died. Eight more anarchist labor leaders were then executed by the state, including Lucy Parsons’ husband, Albert Parsons. 

Reclaiming the history of May Day requires us to understand the initial confrontations against the police that birthed this significant day, when it was clear that the police were the primary instrument of state and class violence. It also requires us knowing about some of the organizations, especially the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), that were visionary for the workers’ multiracial, anti-racist organizing. From lumber workers in the Northwest to Black workers in longshore to Chinese workers building the transcontinental railroad and Mexican workers in California and the Southwest, the IWW, better known as “the Wobblies,” believed in organizing as a working class, defined as lack of access to property and capital, regardless of employment or work in specific industries, guilds, and crafts. The IWW’s largest contribution to modern labor movements was putting into practice the belief that the working class, employed or not, needed to be united across race and industry to defeat the monopoly of capitalist power and its means of violent reinforcement: the police. 

Lucy Parsons in jail following her arrest at a January 17, 1915 hunger demonstration. (Photo: Labadie Collection, public domain)

Fast forward almost a hundred years later, Lucy Parsons’ vision of class struggle for freedom is still a goal and one that we continue to fight for globally, including here in the belly of the beast. Because uniting the international working class (rather than guilds, crafts, or sects divided by national identities and xenophobia) may be our only path to liberation, as challenging as it may be. As Dr Charisse Burden-Stelly, a Black intellectual, said in a recent discussion on abolition and communism, “the ruling class is internationalist,” by which she meant that the powers that be — from police departments in Seattle trained by the Israeli Defense Force brutally targeting predominantly Black and Indigenous communities here; to the global headquarters of corporations such as Amazon, Uber, Apple creating gig economies and precarious work across the world; and the governing bodies of economic forums such as the World Trade Organization and APEC — connect across borders to enforce fierce discipline on the working class globally. To fight back against the forces of oppression, our resistance has to be international and truly liberatory for all people to address the ways in which imperialism, settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and class oppression intertwine. 

The original May Day general strike fought for the eight hour work day. Eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours to do what you will. 

But the promise remains unfulfilled, as this pandemic reveals more starkly than ever. 

Eight Hours of Work

The ruling class has never kept its promise of the eight-hour workday, even when it is purported to be enshrined in labor law.

Our incarcerated loved ones and families, who are predominantly Black and Brown, do not know the eight-hour workday. Entangled in the suffocating tentacles of the criminal legal system, they are thrown behind walls ruled by arbitrary laws. The Thirteenth Amendment legalizes their enslavement, and the courts enforce their subjugation. Today in the Department of Corrections, even throughout the COVID pandemic, our incarcerated loved ones have not stopped working at their jobs, whether it is the reproductive labor to sustain the prison through janitorial, laundry, cleaning work or profit generating labor in Correctional Industries. 

Meanwhile, they are subject to arbitrary violence meted out by guards whose unionized status obscure and protect their violent roles. Our incarcerated loved ones are forced to work to maintain the institution that subjugates them. To add salt to injury, the pittance of wages they receive are garnished by the Department of Corrections. 

Eight Hours of Rest

There is no rest for the weary. There is no rest in the stress of the assembly line in factories across the world rushing to release the newest Apple gadgets. Neither is there rest in the stress of the clock that times how quickly one picks items for same-day deliveries in Amazon warehouses. In desperation, sometimes rest is found only in a premature death. 

In “On my Deathbed,” Xu Lizhi, the Foxconn worker in Shenzhen, China who took his own life in 2014 following a series of worker suicides at the same factory plant, laments the longing to rest: 

《我弥留之际》

“On My Deathbed”

我想再看一眼大海,目睹我半生的泪水有多汪洋

I want to take another look at the ocean, behold the vastness of tears from half a lifetime

我想再爬一爬高高的山头,试着把丢失的灵魂喊回来

I want to climb another mountain, try to call back the soul that I’ve lost

我还想摸一摸天空,碰一碰那抹轻轻的蓝

I want to touch the sky, feel that blueness so light

可是这些我都办不到了,我就要离开这个世界了

But I can’t do any of this, so I’m leaving this world

所有听说过我的人们啊

Everyone who’s heard of me

不必为我的离开感到惊讶

Shouldn’t be surprised at my leaving

更不必叹息,或者悲伤

Even less should you sigh or grieve

我来时很好,去时,也很好

I was fine when I came, and fine when I left.

Eight Hours for What You Will

A joyful militancy, adrienne marie brown reminds us, makes room for vulnerability, connection, and love, even — and especially — in the midst of struggle and resistance. Trust, the fabric of relationships, is tested in moments of upheaval. It is the weaving of conflict resolution strategies, a healing journey of our intergenerational traumas living in the belly of the beast, that can strengthen our ability to withstand the pressures of counterinsurgency tactics. Tactics that manufacture interpersonal and movement conflicts, finessed by the state at worst or by a culture of individualism at best. 

Spaciousness to learn ourselves and each other, to explore our emotional and spiritual depth, to cultivate our resilience, is something worth fighting for. The best fighters have waged love as ammunition for the protracted struggles we are engaged in. “True revolutionaries are guided by feelings of love,” said Che Guevara, before he lost his life to CIA-backed forces. As movements go through their ebb and flow and string our emotions along with tumultuous cycles, as the politricks from the status quo aim to further divide and conquer, the need for space, leisure, connection becomes even more important — and harder to achieve.

Lucy Parsons c. 1886 (photo: T. Maub, Chicago, Labadie Collection, public domain)

The struggle for breath and spaciousness is inextricable from the class struggle, the kind that Lucy Parsons and generations of workers have fought and died for.

It is, historically, the class contempt of official Labor History, whitewashed in academia, seeking a place in the imperialist, white supremacist status quo, torn away from the real struggles and sufferings of the working class as a whole, regardless of employment status, nationality, gender, or race, that has erased or minimized the contributions of everyday workers to our collective human history. 

It is on the shoulders and the legacies of unnamed, forgotten, silenced workers whose daily resistance creates the conditions for a different world, that we continue the fight to pursue freedom dreams, here and across the globe. All power to the international working class. 

Happy May Day!


JM Wong (they/them) is a queer child of the Chinese diaspora living on Duwamish lands (Seattle) via Malaysia/Singapore and many cities in between. They are a healthcare worker, policy analyst, and community member. They write about their time working in health care in “caring: a labor on stolen time.” They believe in the power, brilliance, and resilience of the global working class.

📸 Feature image by Susan Fried.

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