By PMW, April 24 2023
On a beautiful spring day in rural Indiana, Hannah, her husband Sal, and their small child, are at a small, but spacious Middle Eastern cafe. The taste of fresh baklava and cinnamon tea, and the sounds of soothing music, make this place something special, an oasis of peace for them. Outside, all around them, is an otherwise very homogeneous conservative community.
As Sal plays with their child, drawing on the placemats, Hannah is at her laptop on a zoom call, right beside a window bright with sunlight.
A neighbor stops in for coffee to go, and waves to them. But like most in their community, their neighbor has little idea what Hannah is up to, and might be quite surprised to find out.
The truth is that Hannah and Sal are working class anarchists. And the zoom she’s on is the Labor Committee of the Workers Solidarity Alliance, the oldest continuous, anarchist, national group in the US. It was founded in 1984.
Working on labor related news articles Is Hannah’s passion. When she’s not at home caring for her child or doing online work, she often hops cafes with her laptop, where she researches and writes. She texts with Sal, at his full time factory job, and she runs ideas by him about her current thoughts on labor issues and the possibilities of future revolution. When she reaches their favorite cafe, she sits by the great window, and returns to her research. She tries to keep up on the current work of the International Workers’ Association, (IWA-AIT), founded a hundred years ago, and through their work, learns about current solidarity campaigns and how to support them.
But today, being there with her family is especially nice, and her family gets to see her doing democratic decision-making with her fellow workers.
The political tradition of WSA is ‘Anarchist-Syndicalism,’ where the long term goal is idealistic—that is, to build labor unions that not only fight for workers’ rights, but that can also transform capitalist society into a classless society, run by workers’ direct democracy.
Their friend Pete often says this way of thinking is “Ambitious, but noble,” when he gives talks about Syndicalism. He’s very aware that their goals can sound visionary.
The six or so anarchists on the zoom call are located all over the country. Clarissa is in upstate NY, Rebecca in NC, Danielle and Sachi are in Philadelphia, Pete in Ca, and Melissa is calling in from NYC but is on and off the call due to work. And Ben in Wyoming hops in for a moment. Together they constitute a loose subcommittee of a committee, working on an upcoming May Day event, held online in less than a week.
This will be the second year the Workers Solidarity Alliance has had such a May Day gathering online.
Hannah is on mute, attending to some quick family life at the cafe. Another round of tasty food is ordered, and she enthusiastically looks at her son’s drawings on the place mat.
Then, it’s back to the meeting, and off mute, with the beautiful cafe music in the background. She gives a report on scheduling for the May Day event. The group’s musician, Martin Traphangan in NJ, has confirmed, and is doing a sound check with them tonight. He has a new song with a chomsky quote and mood creating sounds for his guitar to feel its way around.
Clarissa , who was asked to read her poem about sex workers’ rights, is practicing reciting it. Like last year, the program will open with a May Day speech…famously only one minute long!
A few WSA families have small children, and last year, the day before the online event, they had a small May Day for the children with a craft, a song and a story, all age appropriate themes of Worker rights. The kids particularly loved it when Clarissa sang a song to them. The parents on the zoom call smile remembering this, & they confirm to the group that yes, they are planning the same thing on Sunday the day before May Day, an afternoon craft, song, and story.
Clarissas driving passion has always been how to better group process.. With decades of activist facilitation behind her, she’s often thought about how our group process is inseparable from our political values. This has been a major contribution she has brought to WSA work since 2016. She’s worked hard to help new WSA members get the practice and hands on skills to facilitate meetings, to rotate the roles.
As an aside in the meeting, Pete mentions that they are working on an interview with her, all about group process and syndicalism. Folks on the meeting express interest.
“In order to have a society where workers manage themselves collectively, we need all of our best group process skills. To have a culture that values all voices and all people equally in decision-making, we need to practice ways of working together that don’t reproduce oppression. Deliberation takes practice!”
Danielle shares with the group some information she’s pulled together about sex work as a labor issue, and efforts to support sex workers banding together in solidarity. The subcommittee was inspired by Clarissa’s poem, and decide that Sex Work and Labor should be the theme this year.
“Anyone who works deserves the protection of their workplace” Danielle explains, “just because the government doesn’t like sex workers doesn’t make a whole section of people, some of whom you probably know , doesn’t mean that their industry doesn’t put them at risk or doesn’t pay them fair wages. There are some people who can’t afford to charge the going rates or excessive celebrity rates. Everyone deserves to be able to pay their bills, it doesn’t matter what sector of labor they’re in.”
Danielle makes reference to the early beginning of May Day, and points out how, from this legacy, standing with Sex Workers is crucial for May Day.
In NYC, Melissa is logging in, visiting the May Day committee. Rebecca in North Carolina was just going over some resources about the history of the Haymarket affair, the 19th century beginnings of the workers’ May Day. On the zoom she asks Melissa, “Wait…weren’t you actually AT the Forest Home Cemetery? Did you see the Haymarket Martyrs monument?”
Back in the early 90s, Melissa, Sachi, and their friend Bob, traveled to Chicago for an activist conference, and while there, made a special trip to the cemetery to see the grave of Emma Goldman, famous anarchist and feminist.
Melissa recounts how the day they made their pilgrimage, the weather was freezing. Finding Emma Goldman’s grave was an inspiring experience, but they also found the monument to the Haymarket martyrs, dedicated in 1892. They actually didn’t know where it was located before they got there!
The monument stands in honor of the men who were executed by the state in the wake of the Haymarket affair, where a bomb that killed and injured people was thrown into a crowd protesting for labor rights. Seven of the dead were police, four were civilians, and dozens of people were injured. Without evidence, 8 anarchists were scapegoated—rounded up and convicted of conspiracy; of the eight, 7 were sentenced to death, and one was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Of the seven who received death sentences, 2 had their sentences commuted to life in prison, one committed suicide in jail before his scheduled execution, and four were killed by the state. At the front of the monument stands a powerful female figure of Justice over the body of a fallen worker. Melissa reads aloud the inscription they read that day: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”
Melissa describes the powerful effect of this day on her, how remembering it bolsters her conviction to continue to work for labor justice. She references the information that Danielle shared as regards supporting sex workers’ right to organize, how right this is for May Day.
Rebecca is an anarchist geographer of the group. As she’s on the zoom, she’s on her break from her workday at a local farm. Her boots are caked with mud and her hands are tired from pulling weeds. She files through her backpack for some papers to show the group from the previous May Day event.
While the committee works out the details of the May Day meeting, she’s already thinking about the event after: what archive will all this go to? What will future historians of anarchism find in the story of how they decided things together?
As the meeting wraps up, she shows the group some highlights she has from the previous year, and leaves them with a document that has at the top last year’s “One Minute” speech by Melissa, and a short speech from their Paterson NJ comrade Greg, remembering the events of the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913.
“See you next week on May Day!” Hannah says to the group and they say their goodbyes. Hannah closes her laptop, and her family gets ready to head home for dinner.
She has copies of last year’s May Day speech and Greg’s Silk Strike speech, which accidentally fall on the sidewalk outside as the family leaves, opening the possibility that the workers who find them will pick them up, and be inspired.