Thursday, April 28, 2011

May Day and Black Cats: Hidden History

Our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin are calling for a statewide general strike on May 1st, 2011. Why on May Day? Most Americans don't know this, but May 1st is celebrated internationally as an important date in the history of labor rights - most notably in regard to the fight for the eight hour day, and, most searingly, in memory of the Haymarket martyrs. Although our own Labor Day was originally observed in remembrance of those whose lives were taken from them in the Pullman Strike, the holiday as it's observed today is very depoliticized. Attempts to move Labor Day to May 1st have been met with opposition; due to anti-communist sentiment, the US government dubbed May 1st as "Americanization Day" in 1921, "Loyalty Day" in 1949, and "Law Day" in 1958. (It's like you can see the conformity pressing in on itself before the country finally explodes with beats and hippies.)

The black cat on the posters above is, of course, the symbol of a wildcat strike. You may have noticed black cat iconography - particularly the image of a cat hissing, hair standing on end - in a lot of the pamphlets and literature that has been circulating on the subject of Wisconsin. Widely understood as an emblem of the labor struggle and of anarcho-syndicalism, it's been most prominently used by the Industrial Workers of the World. (The cat represents sabotage, a tactic of particular use to industrial workers.) According to oral tradition, the black cat was adopted as a mascot after a loggers' strike that was going badly - strikebreakers had been doing their worst and several workers had been hospitalized. When a skinny black cat happened to wander into the their camp, the workers fed and sheltered it. As the cat's health returned, the strike took a turn for the better, and the workers got some of their demands met. The black cat turned out to be good luck for them, they decided.

"You know if you saw a black cat go across your path you would think, if you were superstitious, you are going to have a little bad luck. The idea of sabotage is to use a little black cat on the boss."
-Ralph Chaplin, artist and Wobblie.

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