The following is the speech given by Jess Sundin, a leader of Freedom Road Socialist Organization, at the FRSO-organized May Day celebration in Minneapolis on May 3.
Greetings! And happy May Day, to all the sisters and brothers, comrades and friends gathered here.
This day, International Workers Day, is celebrated by the working class in every corner of the world. This great holiday, a communist holiday, is marked with protests and marches, and also with meetings and celebrations. It’s been more than 125 years since May Day began, and struggles by U.S. workers and our unions have won the eight-hour work day, the 40-hour work week, health and safety rules at work, the right to unionization, unemployment insurance, welfare and social security, minimum wage, and much more. These things are threatened in workplaces and government halls every day. The people you will hear from tonight are, like you, at the forefront of defending our class against these attacks.
Before all of that, let us begin tonight by remembering that first May Day. It was 1886, a time of great protests and strikes by workers; and also a time of great violence and repression against our class and its leaders.
A general strike was being carried out in Chicago, and many other US cities, to demand an 8-hour work day. At that time, most people worked 12 to 14 hours a day, 6 days a week. Half a million workers joined the strike, with Chicago being one of the most successful places. A public demonstration was called for at Haymarket Square, to stand up to police brutality against striking workers. At the end of the speeches, police moved in to disperse the crowd. A bomb exploded in their path, and police began firing on the demonstrators. Within a few minutes, dozens of people were killed or wounded, and the police had an excuse to unleash a campaign of repression against the good people of Chicago that lasted for months, and led to the legal lynching of four men who were killed by the state of Illinois for their role in organizing that first May Day protest in Chicago.
I think we grow up imagining that the ruling class gave us Labor Day, which they have in September, as an act of kindness or generosity. Just like maybe we think it was the bosses’ idea to make the work day last 8 hours. It was not until fifty years after the Haymarket massacre that the 8-hour day became the law of the land. We’re here today, because we know the truth, our day, International Workers Day, is May 1st. And it was the labor movement that brought us the 8-hour day. We know “that power concedes nothing without demand – it never has and it never will!”
The immigrant rights mega-marches of 2006 reignited May Day, with marches in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and beyond. Millions of Chicano, Mexicano and Central American protesters took to the streets to fight for legalization and full equality. Last year, tens of thousands joined together around the country for immigrant rights marches, and with unions as a part of the upsurge around Occupy Wall Street. And earlier this week, on May 1st, many of us joined MIRAC (the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee) and Mesa Latina in St. Paul for another great march to demand immigrant rights.
We are still marching now because the people’s movements are as needed as much today as they were in 1886. We aren’t looking to just make a few changes here and there. We are up against a real monster: A system called capitalism.We all know that capitalism is the system that we live under, but just like we don’t learn our history, most of us don’t learn what capitalism is or how it works. Capitalism is a political and economic system that is designed to be unfair. It’s set up so that a few people will own the factories, the trucks, the banks and all the rest. They get their money not by working, but by making other people work hard for them. Those few people are very rich, and I don’t mean like lottery winners. Some of them have more wealth than whole countries! And all of them have more to say about who will be the next president than all the voters in this country put together. They are the capitalist class – sometimes called the 1%, but really, they’re just a fraction of a percent of 1% of the people in this world.
While those guys live in the lap of luxury and call all the shots, the rest of us, the vast majority, we work hard just to get by. We cut coupons to feed our families. We live in apartments and pay rent to a landlord; or if we have a house, it’s the bank that owns most of it. I always say that I own the first floor half-bath at my house. Under capitalism, you can work every day of your adult life, and still go to your grave owing money to banks and hospitals, and even the undertaker.
Our role in the system of capitalism is not to own, but to work. Or to raise children who will grow up to be workers. Or if we’re unemployed, our role is to make those with a job feel so lucky to have a job, that they won’t demand self-respect, decent wages, safe working conditions, or anything else. All of us together, we are the working class.
At the same time, this country was founded on racism, slavery, theft and the super-exploitation of oppressed peoples. That is the key to the super-rich in this country: Native lands were stolen, African Americans built the Southern half of this country and still have no real political or economic power as a people; the Southwest was stolen from Mexico, but the Chicano people who have always lived on that land are treated as second class citizens. They stole whole countries, like Puerto Rico and Hawaii.
So when we talk about the working class, we mean a truly multinational working class, and one which makes real alliances with all oppressed peoples. That’s just here within the U.S. We also embrace the international working class. With all these people we have a shared interest in overthrowing capitalism, and imperialism (the global and highest stage of capitalism).
Of course, people don’t want to live like this, with the vast majority under the boot of a handful of greedy fat cats. And so we fight back. In fact, the history of our class is a history of struggle – of doing the work that makes society run, and then fighting the owning class for our livelihoods, and sometimes for our very lives.
Today, workers in the U.S. are resisting cutbacks to public services and attacks on our wages, pensions and rights. Even here in Minnesota, land of the Democratic Farmer Labor party, there was an attempt to take away the union rights of public employees. They call it “right to work,” but we know they mean the right to work for less wages, less job security, and less dignity.
Public school teachers have always been kicked around by the right-wing, but in Chicago, it was Democratic Mayor Rahm Emmanuel who pushed the Chicago Teachers Union to a strike – not just defending their jobs, but fighting against school closures and privatization. Their example inspired people across the country. Just like past strikes by University clerical workers, the Chicago teachers showed that workers can – and should – stand up in the face of attacks.
When we speak of working class struggles, no one stands above Minnesota’s own Welfare Rights Committee in the fight to defend the social safety net that we absolutely need to survive. I don’t know of any other state that has an organization of low income people fighting not only to poor-bashing, but also to win INCREASES in benefits that our families absolutely need. Let’s hear it for WRC!
Also this past year African Americans and their allies boldly confronted a spike in racist terrorism and police brutality. The murder of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American youth, provoked outrage. It was only because of people’s protests that Florida moved to prosecute the racist vigilante George Zimmerman. Just this March in Brooklyn, 16-year-old African American student Kimani Gray was shot to death by the New York police department, and the community responded with militant protests – protests which police responded to by declaring martial law in Brooklyn. Racist terrorism by vigilantes like Zimmerman and by the police is an inherent part of the national oppression of Black, Chicano and other oppressed nationalities. The movement to end this oppression is rising. Freedom Road supports this as a key part of the right to self-determination for the Black Belt nation in the South and for the Chicano nation in the Southwest.
To speak again of the immigrant rights movements, it was undocumented youth, known as the Dreamers, who directly confronted Obama with sit-ins and militant protests at his campaign offices. Youth and students are vital to any movement for social change, known for pushing the limits. The Dreamers are responsible for some of the first real gains for immigrant rights in a long time. They taught us that we don’t win by negotiating with the rulers, but rather by demanding what we need.
The fight for democratic rights is part and parcel of the working class struggle. That is why this May Day, when I think of what we have accomplished this year, I cannot overlook the victories for gay marriage in several states, including Minnesota. We stand for full equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people. With Minnesota’s anti-gay marriage amendment, a basic principle of equality was at stake. As long as heterosexual marriage carries with it rights and concrete benefits recognized by the government (health insurance coverage, hospital visitation, inheritance, etc.), we must fight for gay marriage to be legally recognized too. Even as we celebrate the gains made by queer comrades, and work for further victories, we believe that no rights or entitlements should be contingent on any marriage, gay or straight.
While this issue certainly touches me personally, even as a lesbian mom, I have been far more personally impacted by repression. Many of you know, the FBI and a federal prosecutor have targeted myself, along with many others in this room – folks from the anti-war and Palestine solidarity movements, and especially Freedom Road Socialist Organization. I know that you will hear more about this from Tracy, and I urge everyone of you to listen to what she has to say.
Our case is one of countless examples of government repression of people’s movements, examples that go back to May Day 1886, and before that, to the foundations of this country. I don’t have time to recount for you all the important cases from history, or even the most important ones from today. There is one in the forefront of my mind today – that of Assata Shakur, great hero of the Black Liberation Movement. Active in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army in the early 1970s, she was framed up in several cases, with police under authority to shoot her on sight. She was captured alive after a shootout on the New Jersey turnpike. She was tried for six different charges – murder, bank robbery, kidnapping – and not convicted in one of those. She was convicted of murder in the shoot-out where she was captured, and given a life sentence.
Assata Shakur was gravely mistreated in prison – kept in solitary, sometimes in men’s prisons, and frequently tortured and abused. Somehow, a few of her comrades managed to help her escape from prison in 1979. She fled to socialist Cuba, where she still lives today as a political refugee.
Why is Assata on my mind today? Because this week, the FBI added her to the Most Wanted Terrorist list, and doubled the bounty on her head to $2 million. Assata has not been in this country since I was a small child. She is a writer, a political activist, and a historic African American leader. She is not a terrorist.
We don’t know why the FBI has done this now, almost 35 years after Assata escaped that prison. We do know that the US government has a long memory for ill will. That same long memory moved the FBI agents investigating us in 2010, to bring back a nearly 40-year old case against Carlos Montes! Carlos Montes and Assata Shakur were both targets of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program against people’s movements, and especially liberation movements (Carlos was a Brown Beret, a leader of the Chicano Liberation movement). I think the FBI remembers these cases best because they didn’t win. Assata Shakur is treated like a hero today in sunny Cuba, while Carlos Montes is still free and fighting in Los Angeles.
We need more victories like theirs, so we align ourselves with others fighting against political repression. This includes hundreds of Arabs, Somalis and other Muslims, imprisoned as so-called terrorists, while it is the US military that reigns down terror from the skies over countries across the globe, and it is the US that backs terrorist regimes in Israel, Colombia and elsewhere.
We know that war and repression are the last resort of a failing empire, which cannot rule without the use of force.
Many countries are resisting U.S. empire, its greedy demands. We welcome every force that stands against our rulers, including in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. First among these is Palestine, where even the children are heroes! They confront tanks and armed soldiers with rocks and slingshots. Even under threat of imprisonment, they protest openly against the US-backed Israeli occupation. In Syria, some people believe that those fighting against the government are like us, and that they are fighting for democracy. In fact, the Syrian government is at the frontline of resisting US imperialism in the Middle East. The US interest there is not in democracy for Syrians, but in a puppet government controlled by the US for the easy profit of US corporations.
Some of the biggest May Day protests this year were in Bangladesh, coming the week after a factory collapsed killed more than 400 workers. Before the collapse, the workers had seen the cracks in the factory walls. They didn’t want to go into the building, but were told by factory owners they would be fired if they refused to work. And so, to feed their families, they went into that building. And they were killed. On May Day, people demanded justice for the dead workers, including prosecution to hold the factory owner responsible for their deaths.
May Day reminds us of the need for a militant anti-war movement here that stands in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in oppressed nations. When they strike a blow against imperialism in their countries, they strike a blow against the same bankers, corporations and rich elites that rip us off and exploit and oppress us here in the U.S. This is as true with the Bangladeshi worker as much as with the Palestinian resistance fighter, or the Colombian guerrilla.
The work we all do from day to day is incredibly important, but on May Day, in the shadows of those who have fought and died for our cause, we must think about how the work we do can be a part of changing history. There is a way to put an end to this struggle against suffering, and that is socialism. Socialism is a system that puts power in the hands of working people and our class. It’s only logical that society should be run by the majority. Of course, if we were in power, we would make sure that the basic needs of the majority were met. The rich ruling class that is in power today doesn’t have a clue about what we need. Even the small-time Minnesota state politicians couldn’t get by on the amount of money that we live on with welfare. Most were afraid to try it, and the few that did try, they couldn’t do it. They don’t understand anything about how we live.
That is why May Day is also an important time to celebrate the accomplishments of the socialist countries – Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos and Democratic Korea – where the working class holds political and economic power. These are countries that have pulled people out of poverty; where housing, health care and education are guaranteed. And where the people who work to make the wealth of the country also benefit from that wealth.
It is no surprise that socialists were the first to call for people to celebrate May Day. Long live International Workers Day!