May Day: Reflecting on the Past, Mobilizing for the Future

“In California we find a curious attitude toward a group that makes our agriculture successful. The migrants are needed, and they are hated.  Arriving in a district they find the dislike always meted out by the resident to the foreigner, the outlander.  The hatred of the stranger occurs in the whole range of human history from the most primitive village form to our own highly organized industrial farming. The migrants are hated for the following reasons, that they are ignorant and dirty people, that they are carriers of disease, that they increase the necessity for police and the tax bill for schooling in a community, and that if they are allowed to organize they can, simply by refusing to work, wipe out the season’s crops. They are never received into a community nor into the life of a community.  They are never allowed to feel at home in the communities that demand their services.”[i]

Reading these words, one might think that they spoke of the contemporary experiences of immigrants in the United States. However, it was John Steinback who wrote these words In 1936, as part of a series of articles for the San Francisco Examiner.  The ‘migrants’ he referred to were, the ‘Okies’ from Oklahoma  –poor white farmers fleeing the Midwest in the midst of the Dustbowl and the Great Depression in hopes of simply finding jobs to help their families survive.  I find myself inspired by the series of articles John Steinback wrote in “The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath” because it reminds me that our histories are interlinked. It reminds me that the fight against discrimination, and the pursuit of social justice is a marathon, not a sprint and impacts all social groups.

It seems almost poetic that this May Day, I find myself in an airplane traveling the length of California  (or most of it at least) –San Jose to San Diego.  Looking out the windows, I see agricultural fields cover the land below, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Obscured from my view at 25,000 feet are the immigrants planting, plowing, and harvesting those fields, ensuring each of us fresh fruits and vegetables on our tables year round. As I gaze out at the land below, I remember that the immigrants working today are part of a much longer history that connects generations of immigrants to the land and economic development of this country.  My grandfather, like many other fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers worked these fields creating the wealth and plenty so many of us benefit from. The discrimination felt by the Okies during the Great Depression still exists today.

May Day –the International Day of the Worker should remind us of the contributions that all workers make to improve the quality of our lives.  Obscured or lost from our working knowledge of history is the fact that unionized workers are responsible for the 8 hour work day, child labor laws, and occupational safety standards.  Immigrant workers built the historic and contemporary infrastructure of this country –including but not limited to the railroads, highways, the technological super-highway, the cell phones we carry, and the food we eat.  They clean our offices, our cars, our universities,  parks, and public spaces.  We depend on them to take care of our children, cook our food, and sew our clothes.  Almost all of us (with the exception of those indigenous to these lands) are immigrants –some new and others a few generations removed.    If it were not for the May Day strikes in both 1885 and 1886, the ‘work day’ would be very different then what it looks like today[ii].

Now, May 1st 2011, workers’ rights are under attack again.  Legislation weakening or dismantling collective bargaining rights is on the table in over 20 states.  In addition, 24 states have proposed anti-immigrant legislation under the guise of immigration reform.  The challenge, it seems, is to move beyond scare tactics and hearsay. Instead, we must remind ourselves of the history that built this country and commit ourselves to standing for the principles of democracy, community, and fairness that the country was founded on.  When we care for workers, and invest in their well-being we all prosper. This May Day, let’s recommit ourselves to promoting policies and procedures that help, not hurt workers.

[i] Steinback,, J. (1936) The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath

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