A Time of Renewal

About this time every year, when spring sparks life all around, humankind gets busy as well. We are found celebrating, remembering, crusading – and taking it to the streets, as was the case Saturday, April 29, in Washington, DC. The People’s Climate March brought 200,000 activists to swelter in global warming-style heat in the swamp, where they called out the deniers and demanded action. The march originated in New York City in 2014, but carried a particular urgency this year.


With the temperature at a record 91 degrees, 200,000 people marched in Washington on April 29. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Just last week we celebrated Earth Day, first observed in 1970, and thousands more filled the streets across the nation to “March for Science,” and specifically the science that helps us protect the planet that sustains us. Friday, April 28, was Arbor Day, celebrating trees, and these living reminders of our bond to the Earth. Through photosynthesis, the trees yield oxygen for us and absorb the carbon dioxide that otherwise would degrade our atmosphere, and threaten life.

We live in a Green House, and our life depends on it. We are reminded of its splendor each year at this time. The air is moist with the stuff of life. We breathe deep and find renewal in the rebirth of the Earth. We try to reach beyond the bonds that hold us to this fragile planet, as the Christians do with Easter, as the Jews do with Passover, as Muslim sufi mystics and early pagans did with rebirths like Ishtar, or the Egyptian Horas. The spring equinox has always been a time of spiritual, as well as physical, renewal.

Thus, it’s not surprising that the last Saturday in April is designated “World Tai Chi and Qigong Day,” also celebrated as “World Healing Day,” when people all over the world spend an hour or two in group energy transference, through Taoist meditation, internal martial arts, and therapeutic breathing exercises. There are natural hazards this time of year with these outdoor exercises, as deep breathing may be interrupted by an assault of pollen and a sneezing attack. But being mindful brings qi energy to absorb the pollen and restore inner balance.

Ah, spring. It is a season that inspired the now ritual “Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” the fourth Thursday of April, April 27 this year. The Ms Foundation for Women concocted the event – originally just for daughters – to empower girls to excel in their eventual workplaces. The first celebration was in 1993, and I remember how some feared that the labor movement’s embrace of the event would overshadow a seminal marker in labor’s history, Workers Memorial Day.


The AFL-CIO designated April 28 as Workers Memorial Day in 1972, when unions also were successfully pushing Congress and the Nixon Administration to create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Each year since, the federation has demonstrated the need for new standards to protect workers on the job, even as each year the business lobby successfully fended off new standards and regulations to protect workers’ safety and health.

In the early 1990s, with support from Robert Reich and the Clinton Labor Department, we were close to gaining new standards for ergonomic safety – providing medical relief and workplace redesign to prevent injuries from repetitive motion – chronic problems for some factory workers, cashiers, office staff and others. Journalists are particularly vulnerable to carpal tunnel syndrome, a crippling condition caused by repetitive motion on keyboards. During the Bush administration, the business lobby blew away the ergonomics standard, and it is even more empowered under Trump.

Nothing matters to our government today more than the bottom line of corporations and rich investors – and particularly those connected to Trump Inc. That’s why the most important celebration, remembrance and crusade of this time of man – May Day – is so important this year. It is the historic symbol of resistance to corporate greed and economic injustice.

May Day, May 1, has been observed around the world as International Workers Day since 1889, commemorating protestors killed at Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 1, 1886, as they demonstrated for the eight-hour day. It was the beginning of a revolution in attitudes, legal precedent and government policies about how workers are treated vis-à-vis business organizations, and it sparked a wave of worker self-organization in the United States and around the world.

Now, with the resurgence of the corporate code of greed, we need this revolution more than ever. But our time of greatest need corresponds with the greatest decline in labor numbers and influence. There is a strong correlation between the two trends, and you can see how it has been manipulated through corporate campaigns that created right-wing think tanks (from Heritage to Cato), the so-called National Right to Work Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Commission and Astroturf groups like Americans for Prosperity.

Billions of dollars in corporate campaigns by the Koch brothers and others, empowered by the nefarious Citizens United ruling, have overwhelmed us with images and noise – and the greatest distraction of all, a hotel and casino magnate running the show, shaking us down. We face an enormous challenge to restore and renew our democracy against this corporate onslaught, but we can draw on the courage and convictions of those women and men who stood up and fought for the rights and protections we have today, and dare not give up.

So, let’s take heart in the people in the streets this year – from the Million Women to the People’s Climate marches. It’s spring, when a free people’s fancy turns to rising again. Happy May Day!


Labor Memorial Day

Growing up, May Day always conjured up Maypole dances and the smell of beautiful flowers at church festivals celebrating Mary, a reputed virgin mother. I learned that it was the day to celebrate St. Joseph the worker, the patron saint of workers, which I know today only partially acknowledges the importance of the holiday.

May 1 has been observed around the world as International Workers Day since 1889, in memory of the protesters killed at Haymarket Square, Chicago, campaigning for the eight-hour workday. The labor activists had set May 1, 1886 as the day for a nationwide strike for better working conditions, but the peaceful May 4 Chicago rally quickly became a confrontation with police and agitators.

The “Haymarket Massacre” became a rallying cry for the union movement in the United States and around the world. Through the struggle of those unionists and others who have followed in their footsteps, we have won not only the 8-hour day and the 40-hour workweek, but also overtime pay, fair labor standards and protections, job safety regulations, and laws that allow us to bargain with employers over pay and conditions of work, including pensions and health care.

So, May Day is something to celebrate. It doesn’t require a march with the trappings of war, as the despots in Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang have staged, or even with bullhorns and protest signs at the local Wal-Mart – although that would be appropriate. But it does require an understanding that nothing will be won in our society without a unified struggle against the corporate powers that control industry and, to a great degree, government.


Mother Jones, right, helps a little girl with her shoe at the tent encampment of miners in Ludlow, Colo., in 1886.

It’s also a good time to remember those who have paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of economic justice – not only at Haymarket Square but also in other seminal labor fights. This is a time when the United Mine Workers honor the memory of the 66 men, women and children who were killed in April 1914 in an attack on striking miners’ camp at Ludlow, Colo., and in the protests that followed – one of the deadliest labor confrontations in our history.

The attack on the miners, orchestrated by oil baron John D. Rockefeller Jr. and a detective agency he hired, with the assistance of the governor of Colorado and the National Guard, is one of the saddest chapters in the long-running war on organized workers in this country. While the violence may have dissipated over time, corporations still take no prisoners in their systematic assault on worker rights.

May 1 also is the day famed schoolteacher, dressmaker and union organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones claims as her birthday, although the record is not clear on her birth. But she made sure the record was clear about Ludlow, where she went to help the families during the strike. Here’s her first-hand account from her 1925 autobiography:

“All day long the firing continued. Men fell dead, their faces to the ground. Women dropped. The little Snyder boy was shot through the head, trying to save his kitten. A child carrying water to his dying mother was killed. By five o’clock in the afternoon, the miners had no more food, nor water, nor ammunition. They had to retreat with their wives and little ones into the hills. Louis Tikas was riddled with shots while he tried to lead women and children to safety. They perished with him.

“Night came. A raw wind blew down the canyons where men, women and children shivered and wept. Then a blaze lighted the sky. The soldiers, drunk with blood and with the liquor they had looted from the saloon, set fire to the tents of Ludlow with oil-soaked torches. The tents, all the poor furnishings, the clothes and bedding of the miners’ families burned. Coils of barbed wire were stuffed into the well, the miners’ only water supply.

“After it was over, the wretched people crept back to bury their dead. In a dugout under a burned tent, the charred bodies of eleven little children and two women were found – unrecognizable. Everything lay in ruins. The wires of bedsprings writhed on the ground as if they, too, had tried to flee the horror. Oil and fire and guns had robbed men and women and children of their homes and slaughtered tiny babies and defenseless women. Done by order of Lieutenant Linderfelt, a savage, brutal executor of the will of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

“The strikers issued a general call to arms: Every able bodied man must shoulder a gun to protect himself and his family from assassins, from arson and plunder. From jungle days to our own so-named civilization, this is a man’s inherent right. To a man they armed, throughout the whole strike district. Ludlow went on burning in their hearts.”

Ludlow burned into the conscience of a nation, helping to improve the lot of workers everywhere, as Colorado historians explain in a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary:

The UMWA’s two-day centennial anniversary event at Ludlow May 17-18 includes family activities including a simulated coalmine, a craft area for kids and performances by local musicians. Noted authors and academics join political and labor leaders in addressing the crowd.

Arlo Guthrie is not scheduled to play, but if he were he would certainly sing his tribute to the brave miners and their families:

For more information about why Ludlow matters, check out this article in The New Yorker.