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May 1, 2017 by

Why May Day Should Be a Jewish Holiday

"ABOLISH CH[ILD] SLAVERY!!" in English and Yiddish ("Nider mit Kinder Schklawerii"), probably taken during May 1, 1909 labor parade in New York City. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

“ABOLISH CH[ILD] SLAVERY!!” in English and Yiddish (“Nider mit Kinder Schklawerii”), probably taken during May 1, 1909 labor parade in New York City. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

It is truly the season for Jewish holidays: in the weeks following Passover, Jewish communities across the world have commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day and many are preparing to observe Yom Hazikaron (a memorial day for fallen Israeli soldiers) and Yom Ha’atzma’ut (a celebration of Israeli independence). I propose one more spring holiday with an important Jewish history to add to the mix: let’s commemorate the important role Jews, especially Jewish women, have played in the history of the labor movement by celebrating International Workers’ Day on May 1st.

May Day has become a worldwide holiday celebrating workers’ victories and demanding protections for workers and immigrants. Dozens of countries observe May 1st as Labor Day, and despite its roots as a European pagan holiday, May Day’s recent history is deeply entwined with the history of Jewish immigrants in the US.

On May 1, 1886, communists, socialists, anarchists, and union members joined together across the US in a general strike demanding an 8-hour workday. An estimated 300,000 people took to the streets across the country, including 40,000 in Chicago. Many of the strikers were Jewish immigrants, who worked in sweatshop conditions at textile factories around the country. Protests continued for days, and while Chicago employers called in scab workers to break the strike, Chicago police opened fire on protesters.

On May 4th, Chicago workers and radicals organized a protest in Haymarket Square to condemn this police violence. There, someone threw a bomb, which killed Chicago police officer Mathias Degan. To this day, no one knows who was responsible for the bomb; but eight innocent strikers—Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg–were arrested, accused of being anarchists, and charged with murder. Seven were sentenced to death and four were hanged by the state of Illinois.

Emma Goldman (1869-1940), a Russian Jewish immigrant who was then a teenager living in Rochester, NY, heard about the Haymarket affair from a travelling socialist speaker. According to her autobiography, Living My Life, the story of the state violence and unjust conviction was one of the foundational moments that politicized Goldman and inspired her lifelong commitment to freedom and anti-capitalism. Goldman is revered as a forward-thinking revolutionary, who advocated for women’s sexual and political freedom—and she had a strong Jewish cultural identity as well, participating in the non-religious anarchist tradition of Yom Kippur balls.

Of course, it’s important to remember that leaders like Goldman were not perfect. Goldman never identified herself as a feminist, rejecting the campaign for women’s suffrage as a futile appeal to state authority, and her writings give little attention to race and racism. And while union wages and the labor movement benefited Jewish workers, propelling many white Jews into the stable middle class, African American and Asian American workers were often excluded from these structures (and thus the benefits of unionization) due to racism.

In the years following 1886, leftists —including socialists, communists, anarchists, and members of labor unions—made May Day an international holiday, a day of strikes, marches, and work stoppages. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union—one of the first unions with a majority woman (and also largely Jewish) membership—was a major participant in early 20th century May Day mobilizations. Many of its leaders were inspired by the tradition of the Bund and other socialist movements.

International Workers’ Day commemorates workers’ hand-won rights, remembers the horror of the Haymarket massacre, and continues demands for civil liberties and workplace protections. Even after the widespread adoption of the eight-hour work day, May Day continues as a holiday and strike day for immigrant mobilization and demands for $15 an hour, the “8 hour workday” of our times. And Jewish people should—and must!—participate.

This year, I’ll be marching here in Durham, North Carolina with the Triangle Unity May Day Coalition, a coalition of undocumented, Muslim, and Black workers as well as community organizations that presents an intersectional vision of justice. The unified platform calls for an end to checkpoints, raids, and deportations; police accountability; $15 per hour and a union for all workers; full repeal of North Carolina’s anti-trans House Bill 2; and fully funding public schools, among other points. These issues affect those in the Jewish community, especially queer Jews, Jews of color, and working-class Jews. They also impact those of us who depend on the solidarity of our Muslim, Latinx, and Black neighbors for protection when our synagogues face bomb threats or the Klan announces a local march—both of which have happened in my community in the past few months.

Emma Goldman, speaking at a May Day rally in 1939, decried those who thought that politics only happened at the polls: she called workers to rely on “direct action, your collective strength, and strike for higher wages,” asking, “let us mark this first of May by the realization that organization in the economic field is our only effective weapon against war and its creator the state, against Capitalism and its offspring Fascism.”

As Americans face the increasing prospect of wars abroad, fascism in the US, and the rollback of civil liberties and workplace protections, we must learn from our ancestors who fought these same struggles generations before us. As a Jewish woman, I honor the history of Jewish leaders in the labor movement, especially the incredible women of the Jewish textile workers’ unions and the visionary leadership of Emma Goldman, by participating in this year’s May Day mobilization. And I hope others in the Jewish community will do the same.


Sandra Korn is a feminist queer Jew who lives in Durham, NC and works in book publishing.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.