By Alan Schultz
Whether you recognize May 1st as “May Day,” “International Workers Day,“ or “A Day With Out Latinxs & Immigrants,” you’ll find revolutionary change at the heart of it. May 1st, 1886, is largely recognized for a nationwide strike called for by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the precursor to the American Federation of Labor) in their demand for an 8 hour work day. In this era it was not uncommon to have children of elementary school age working 10 to 16 hour days 7 days a week. 400,000 people took to the streets in Chicago on May Day alone.
Tragedy struck though, on May 3rd, 1886, when, during a massive rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago a bomb was thrown into a crowd of police officers. One died immediately, 6 others were also fatally wounded, and another 70 or so were injured. The police opened fired on the rally goers and to this day there remains no knowledge of how many lives were lost in total. In the aftermath, a political witch-hunt was conducted. Eight men -all anarchists or socialists- were arrested and tried in front of a rigged court. Four of the men were executed by hanging, one committed suicide while in prison, and the last three were pardoned six years after their conviction in 1887. Of the four men hanged, one was Albert Parsons, a white radical and prominent political figure, who was married to Lucy Parsons, the famous black/chicana/indigenous anarchist, who later went on to be part of the inaugural founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905.
Overshadowed by the Haymarket affair, May 1st, 1886 wasn’t much different in Milwaukee. Central Labor Union (later joining other unions and forming the Congress of Industrial Organization which merged in the 20th century to form the AFL-CIO) and the Catholic Church’s Knights of Labor helped lead an estimated 12,000 people on strike, made up of Polish and German immigrants, along with Indigenous laborers from numerous businesses across Milwaukee. After a month of struggle, roughly 1,500 strikers were marching on the only plant that still hadn’t succumbed to a closure due to the citywide strike; the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View. On May 5th, the National Guard was called out to on the behest of large company owners, and the Governor of Wisconsin. Joining the National Guard were local militias comprised predominantly of local Polish businessmen such as the Kosciusko Militia. In the end, the guardsmen were ordered to “shoot to kill” picketers attempting to enter the building. They killed 6 and another 2 that remain unidentified were found on railroad tracks near the Rolling Mill.
The Industrial Workers of the World, of which I’m a proud member, and whose fellow workers are also referred to as “Wobblies,” was born out of the fight led by the labor movement’s fight for more benefits in their workplace. Their founding assembly consisted of prominent figures such as the feminists Mother Jones and Lucy Parsons and famous labor organizers such as “Big” Bill Haywood and (the soon to be incarcerated) Presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America, Eugene Debs. Wobblies believed in industrial and solidarity unionism, industrial meaning that they would organize folks in an entire ‘shop’ or company without separating them into smaller trade unions separated by craft, and solidarity in that they would unite with other labor forces. The IWW was also the first union in the United States to be totally integrated and actively organized with folks of all races, ethnicities, and genders. They were expressly anti-capitalist and firmly believed that “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common”. Throughout their history the IWW has been plagued with repression, violence, incarceration, and murder, at the behest of government, business owners, privately hired Pinkerton Security forces, and through state sanctioned violence by law enforcement. As a result the IWW oftentimes held union meetings with fellow workers in jail cells This painful but powerful legacy is returning, thanks to the IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (otherwise known as IWOC) and the first ever currently Incarcerated Union branch, chartered in Texas.
Another legacy lives on today; that of injustice in the U.S. Among the many interwoven issues, is the struggle for immigrant’s rights. Reminiscent of the strikes of May 1st, Latinx groups nationally have held “A Day With Out Latinxs & Immigrants” where everyone in solidarity with those communities or is part of those communities shuts down their businesses, calls in sick, or just doesn’t come in to work or school. While this is a fight for less deportations, more inroads to citizenship, and keeping families together, it also has implications regarding government repression, incarceration, and labor. In 2017, the Latinx, Immigrant, Refugee, and labor movements converged in Milwaukee to demand a removal of Sheriff David Clarke for trying to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. 30,000 people were mobilized in front of the Milwaukee County Courthouse. Wisconsin’s proud dairy industry suffered massive profit losses due to the actions, and more importantly, Sheriff Clarke resigned soon after.
Sheriff Clarke had been pushing to enact the federal 287g program, which trains local law enforcement to ask more intrusive questions of people suspected of being undocumented, Inevitably leads to deputies profiling and abusing those they assume to be undocumented. Another 287g proposal was stopped in Sheboygan, WI of last year by packing the local board with hundreds of people. This year, Voces De La Frontera, an organization that advocates and organizes for Latinx community members has called for “A Day With Out Latinx & Immigrants” to be held in Waukesha, WI -a staunchly conservative enclave- to attempt to pressure their Sheriff to retract his application for the 287g program. These programs do nothing but empower local law enforcement to target largely Black and Brown folks, and continue to criminalize already marginalized communities despite the economic drain and trauma inflicted upon families and communities that is caused through such actions
The enslavement and commodification of predominantly Black and Brown bodies already colonized and suffering generational trauma passed down from chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and later manifestations of state violence. The United States incarcerates the most people of any other nation on the planet and and it’s not even close. It does this for profits and to continue its racism -not for rehabilitation. Our entire carceral system is a continuation of white supremacist oppression easily seen in my home state of Wisconsin where Black men make up only 5% of the population but roughly 45% of our prison population. Keefe, a canteen distributor to those inside prison, has increased their costs of products to those incarcerated in the state of Wisconsin thereby making those inside far more likely to choose to work jobs they possibly don’t want as well as burdening families outside who are already missing the financial support of their loved one. In other cases, solitary confinement (otherwise being whitewashed and labelled as “administrative segregation”) is utilized as a threat to ensure there is a steady stream of incarcerated workers laboring for pennies compared to what would regularly be paid if one was outside of prison walls. If one would refuse to work, to strike, that strike would be broken up by the prison guards and all those involved would be moved to ad-seg if not just relocated to an entirely different facility entirely. The companies and state governments investing in prisons have a vested interest in keeping these places filled so as to maintain the illusion that prison rehabilitates people and so cheap labor can be had for private industry and state government industries.
In Milwaukee we have a state taxpayer purchased monument to institutionalized racism and torture; to continued harm to Black, Brown, and Indigenous people -it is called the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. Nestled in the heart of downtown, residents often don’t give the high-rise prison a second glance. They look at its façade and often believe it is just another office building. The windows on this building do not enable those inside to look out, they merely shine diffused sunlight into an access hallway for maintenance people to access the plumbing of the cells on the interior side of the hallway. Not one window looks outside, those incarcerated there do not receive sunlight sometimes for a few months, sometimes for years. The vast majority of the people housed here are Black men being held on an allegation of a technical rule violation, some are awaiting a severely flawed revocation hearing process to see if they must serve out the remainder of their withheld sentence, or they are waitlisted or in an Alternative-To-Revocations (ATR) program such as drug treatment or anger management. 17 people have died in this building since 2001 ranging from folks who are immigrants, to white opiate addicted individuals in the throes of withdrawals, to Black men who weren’t given their medications that they came in with while suffocating from heat exhaustion in an un-airconditioned cell that can reach extreme temperatures in the summer months. There is poor ventilation, overcrowding since they house nearly 3 times the originally built capacity the building was supposed to house, and they exacerbate mental health issues by housing people in cells built for one with three people for 20 to 23 hours a day with no outdoor recreation available at all. Most of the people here haven’t even committed a new crime either, they were sent there either from an allegation, on the whim of a community supervision officer or their supervisor, or due to having the misfortune of bumping into a petty police officer that wants to count the contact as grounds to detain them -the only thing many of these folks are guilty of is being on probation, parole, or extended supervision. These are all ways that Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the U.S. in general attempt to continue to oppress already marginalized people and simultaneously try to profit off of the people they throw into the system. They send people to work camps, lease them out to private companies, and even utilize them in Badger Industries to make all of the desks, chairs, street signs, placards, and nametags that people see throughout the state.
To combat this system there have been groups attempting to reform, dismantle, and/or abolish this system. Groups such as Ex-incarcerated People Organizing with its Close MSDF campaign, JustLeadershipUSA and its Close Rikers campaign in New York City, and the IWW’s own Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) that managed to pull off the U.S.’s largest ever nationwide prison strike on the 45th anniversary of the Attica Uprising, September 9th, 2016. IWOC is unique in that it focuses on being informed and led by currently incarcerated people and has a long-term goal of abolishing the prison system as we know it. To achieve this lofty objective outside committee members write to people who are incarcerated and aid them in any way possible. We provide support and protection from the abuses of prison guards and staff by conducting “phone zaps” (mass call-ins via phone to prison officials to ask about an individual’s health and safety), trying to get media attention when incarcerated workers conduct work stoppages or when they decide to go on a hunger strike. IWOC differs from many reform groups by way of taking more direct actions to try to shutdown the prison system. We attempt to unionize the people incarcerated so that we can shutdown the system from the inside out by hurting their pocket books. When a work stoppage or a lockdown occurs at a facility it becomes extremely expensive to continue to run a prison without the aid of the incarcerated workers, it takes far more staff to watch over a facility, and ultimately that costs taxpayers more and makes prisons obsolete since they are no longer cost effective means of housing or supposedly rehabilitating those imprisoned in them. IWOC while trying to alleviate the harm being done to fellow workers inside, views the right of those incarcerated to unionize as a means to dismantling what many should consider to be the lynch pin of capitalism, white supremacy, and a means for the government to actively repress its dissenters. All those incarcerated are political prisoners because imprisonment occurs due to society, norms, social mores, and arbitrary laws enforced by authoritative agents of the state government. Ultimately all the people inside prisons are a byproduct of politically created conditions and circumstances which manifest themselves in the community and guide people into the carceral system’s clutches.
For IWOC members, anti-capitalists, leftists, socialists, communists, anarchists, union members, immigrants, and the many colonized people inhabiting this nation; we view the prison industrial complex as a means to oppress and disenfranchise. Those who work inside of prisons as guards or administrators are viewed as slave masters and are readily called “bosses” which discerns their difference in not just authority but class. Law enforcement officers routinely over patrol and saturate communities afflicted with poverty that are oftentimes largely comprised of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and immigrated people. These emissaries of the government are the beneficiaries of an inordinate amount of privilege and extrajudicial rights, meaning they are not of the general working class. These individuals are class traitors that prey upon the struggling and marginalized people in our communities, they actively perpetuate poverty by disrupting people’s ability to work, they destroy families by tearing away parents, and they should be directly viewed as the people who actively are standing in the way of real change. These individuals are the guardians of our evil empire, they protect the property of the wealthy, they push people out with eminent domain, they repress the voices of those that would dare challenge the corrupt authority of this country, and they deport, detain, murder, or destroy the communities they pretend to serve and certainly rarely protect. For many radicals, there is no working with these individuals, they have chosen their side, they have decided to perpetuate pain onto people and to do so oftentimes for reasons of job security and higher pay. They will cause strife for others and simply tell you that they are just following orders. We must not fall for this narrative of them being the people that will ultimately save our communities. The people living in our communities and dismantling structural oppressions are the ones who should be seen as acting heroic.
In the spirit of May Day, of International Workers Day, of A Day With Out Latinxs, Refugees, & Immigrants; it is imperative that we do not shirk our responsibilities as loving, compassionate, and empathetic human beings by aiding those who are struggling. It is important that we find the connections between ourselves, our unique oppressions, and that we truly take our righteous indignation out on those who are truly causing us harm and ignoring our concerns. We must stop putting up barriers between movements and unify to fight the overwhelming odds, the status quo, and those few people who are actively trying to cause the inequity, to continue to exploit, and to endlessly cause harm to those they view as beneath them. We cannot continue to sit in our silos with tunnel vision on only our own goals. Without seeing the broader picture of how we all are being harmed by this abusive system and our continued divisions we will never achieve what we set out to accomplish. We must care for each other and our shared battles. We must be bold. We must take risks. We must not be afraid. We must act in solidarity. We must organize and coalesce. We must sustain and reignite the revolutionary fervor that existed during 1886 and combine all of our forces, efforts, and means so we can truly change that which we can no longer stand to ignore. We must show up, show out, and stand up for one another. Will you join us as we shake the pillars of power and overturn this system to stake claim to a different and better possible world that truly is by the people, for the people, and with the people?