May Day revival
May 1, 1999, S.F. The May-Day parade marched to the Gap store at Deboce and market, San Francisco, where 2,000 revelers chanted, "Mr. Fisher, You've got a store - What do you want to the redwoods for?!"

San Francisco Examiner
Sunday, May 2, 1999 -
May Day revival
Thousands gather to celebrate workers and the arrival of spring
Carol Ness
©2000 San Francisco Examiner


INTERNATIONAL Workers Day took on a decidedly San Francisco flavor Saturday in Dolores Park - a pagan and political celebration with giant puppets, a maypole, street theater, poets, singers and free food.

Several thousand people took advantage of the sunny though windy day to spend a few laid-back hours taking in the entertainment, waiting in line for the veggie fare, exchanging ideas with other activists and checking out the scene.

Unlike other labor-oriented events in the Bay Area, the May Day gathering was virtually speech-free, relying on the arts to get the day's messages across.

"This represents a lot of the different radical organizations of San Francisco - radical theater and arts groups getting together to share their struggles and the work they do and the history of May Day, which has been suppressed and forgotten over the years," said 24-year-old Carolyn Cooley of San Francisco.

She helped with the food and took part Saturday "as an anarchist, as an artist, as just a person who is trying to get by in The City."

"This is also to reaffirm efforts to reclaim The City from developers, from commercialism, from consumerism, from the corporations," Cooley added.

Workers across the world have traditionally marched in solidarity on May 1, as they did by the thousands in Europe on Saturday, largely in protest of NATO's airstrikes against Yugoslavia.

Holiday ignored in U.S.

The day is a holiday in many countries, but is virtually ignored in the United States - even though it was born of an American labor strike that won the eight-hour workday in the 1880s.

"We want to reclaim the history of May Day and the history of visionary leaders standing up to the powers that be," said David Solnit of the Art and Revolution Collective, one of the day's organizers, along with the Industrial Workers of the World.

That history goes back to May 1, 1886, when hundreds of thousands of American workers went on strike and four of their leaders - the Haymarket martyrs - were arrested and executed because of it. In 1890, a congress of world Socialist parties chose May 1 as International Workers Day to support the U.S. labor struggle.

In the United States, it has long been supplanted by Labor Day, the September holiday.

But The City's celebration - Reclaim May Day, Reclaim San Francisco - in its second year, is part of a resurgence in some American and Canadian cities, Solnit said.

Its purpose is to draw on the radical spirit of May Day's roots to bring people together in new ways to tackle modern issues, not only working conditions but the environment and the deteriorating quality of life for many people in high-cost San Francisco and elsewhere.

And to celebrate - not only its labor history but also May Day's role since ancient times as a spring festival marking the revival of life after winter.

Pagan roots

Those pagan roots were marked Saturday with a dance around a flower-topped maypole.

The day culminated in a pageant, with giant puppets and 50 performers playing out May Day's history.

Then, the puppets led a procession of about 1,000 people up Dolores Street to the GAP store on Market Street, where a giant puppet of CEO Donald Fisher held center stage in a protest of working conditions in the clothing giant's Saipan plant.

Denise Raab, who does public relations for the Alameda County Community Food Bank, came out to support Art and Revolution, which put on the puppet pageant.

"I think it's important what they're doing to reflect our labor history and to use art to express political views," she said.

With her was Rob "Odeo" Harrison, who came over from Orinda "to experience San Francisco culture in its full glory."

He was also there to celebrate his pagan heritage. And gesturing toward his long Balinese batik shirt and baggy drawstring pants, the software consultant added, "Where else could I dress like this and not stand out?"

Artists paint mural

Halfway up the hill, graffiti artists spray-painted eight long canvas panels.

Lowell High student Allen Molina, 16, and a friend, both part of the Precita Eyes Mural Project, put some finishing touches on one. Molina pointed to words sprayed in the upper corner: "The boss needs you! But you don't need the boss!"

"We didn't do that," he said, "but we like it."

Further up the hill, poets took turns at a smaller stage while the San Francisco Mime Troupe performed on the main stage below at Dolores Street.

Watching the scene were Tom Halpine and his wife, Chuai, who immigrated here from Thailand just two months ago.

"It's a fresh look at San Francisco for her," said Halpine, a teacher at John O'Connell High School in the Mission.

"It's pretty different - especially the man with no clothes," he added, pointing across the way.

His wife, he said, "thought foreigners were crazy before, but it's confirmed today. She's having a hard time connecting International Workers Day with what she sees here."

After a laugh, he added that he found the celebration significant.

"I've always felt that it was too bad we don't celebrate International Workers Day as they do elsewhere in the world. The state of the unions since the Reagan days is pretty poor," he said.

The East Bay held its own May Day Saturday night in Oakland, with International Longshore and Warehouse Union President Brian McWilliams and San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano among the speakers.

©2000 San Francisco Examiner

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