With unemployment reaching Great Depression levels, looking at May Days past in Rochester

With unemployment reaching Great Depression levels, looking at May Days past in Rochester

Workers United: Rochester Regional Joint Board, 750 East Avenue, May Day, 2020. David Kramer wearing Republic of Cuba national baseball team cap, gift of comrade Dean Tucker. [Photo: Len Wilcox, mathematics teacher at the Harley School in Pittsford. Len was out walking his dog Daisy before returning home to zoom teach his next class]

Last year, in May Days past in Rochester, [BELOW] I looked at how the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle covered May Day or International Workers Day. In past eras, in Great Lake cities like Rochester, Cleveland and Milwaukee where socialistic politics were relatively strong, May Day celebrations were significant events.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, May 2nd, 1935, Through the downtown section trooped this May Day parade of celebrators yesterday, ending with a rally and ,mass celebration at Convention Hall. At extreme right can be see Gertrude Welch, Communist organizer and one of the speakers. From May Days past in Rochester

During the dark days of the Great Depression, May Day parades were occasions to display and build working class solidarity. The relatively conservative Democrat and Chronicle — that endorsed Hoover over Roosevelt in 1932 — reported on May Day parades sympathetically.

After World War Two, when Big Labor became more mainstream and less hostile to Big Business, May Day was increasing overshadowed by the national Labor Day holiday. As the labor movement waned, while Labor Day Parades still draw crowds, Labor Day essentially became more a September holiday marking the end of summer than a celebration of the working classes. In the social democracies of Western Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union, May Day is still celebrated, even if the big parades in Red Square have vanished.

Workers United: Rochester Regional Joint Board, 750 East Avenue, International Workers Day, 2020. [Photo: David Kramer]

As we read about massive joblessness, an overwhelmed and shackled unemployment benefits system, worker unrest, protests and strikes, today, International Workers Day, takes on new significance. Strikingly, of course, is how quickly and intensely the world economy fell into this deep slump.

As seen in Who are your labor heroes?, at last year’s Labor Day Parade, we heard talk of wage stagnation and grumblings about the current administration’s anti-labor policies, but few could foresee the the global economic effects of a pandemic that has fallen most sharply on the working classes.

(left) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle 9/3/1912 from “What is the working class?” with Thomas Warfield at the Labor Day Parade.; (right) Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo (R) and David Kramer. Labor Day Parade, 2019. “I am wearing my Cuban national baseball cap given by a friend who recently visited the island. From a historical perspective, Fidel Castro must be considered an important labor figure.” [Photo: William Napier, Chairman, Monroe County Republican Committee] from Who are your labor heroes?

In The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie’s recent editorial, “Another Way the 2020s Might Be Like the 1930s: The strikes at Amazon and elsewhere over working conditions and low pay have been small, but they may spark a new movement.” (2/28/20), Bouie argues:

The strikes and protests of the past month have been small, but they aren’t inconsequential. The militancy born of immediate self-protection and self-interest can grow into calls for deeper, broader transformation. And if the United States continues to stumble its way into yet another generation-defining economic catastrophe, we may find that even more of its working class comes to understand itself as an agent of change — and action.

Still, Bouie prefaces his claim; “We aren’t yet living through a revolution.” Time — and the course of the pandemic — will tell if the spirit of May Day returns.

Of course, defining working class consciousness, identity and self-identity is itself problematic. At the 2016 Labor Day parade, “What is the working class?”, Stefan Cohen, long time social studies teacher at the School of the Arts and now the RCSD Director of the Career in Teaching Program (see How do union teachers teach about unions? ), and I had an extended conversation on how the term “working class” functions within our profession of education. Both Stefan and I are members of the New York State Teachers Union.

As for the label “working class,” Stefan believes the lines of class boundaries are increasingly blurred. Historically, the working class was equated with manufacturing or manual labor. Historically, as a teacher, Stefan would be considered firmly within the professional class. For Stefan, within today’s political and economic alignments, the position of the professional teacher falls more within the broad category of working class. To me, this means if education is the product, then teachers are increasing positioned outside — rather than within — the means of production, as Karl Marx would say, like the alienated proletariat.

(left) Labor Day, 2016, Stefan Cohen (blue Rochester Teacher’s Association shirt) in front of Dilia Olmeida (orange B.E.N.T.E. — Board of Education Non-Teaching Employees — shirt with canine friend; (right) Labor Day, 2015. David Kramer (left) with Stefan Cohen. see How do union teachers teach about unions?;

If proletariat is too strong or misleading a word to describe teachers, over the last thirty years in higher education, colleges and universities have seen the “Proletarianization of the Academy.”

In still increasing numbers, colleges and universities are staffed with poorly paid adjuncts and non-tenured faculty for whom the educational system often feels like the factory assembly line. Recently, graduate students gained a Supreme Court decision validating student unionization. These student workers are pushing back against the same trends Stefan sees in the secondary school system. “What is the working class?”

The pandemic has deeply impacted the educational workforce across the board. With campuses closed at all levels, the need for in-building maintenance personnel, security guards and officers, student workers, primary and secondary school teaching assistants, substitutes and many other positions is greatly diminished. For example, I was invited to substitute at some city schools to gather material for the district facebook page. That opportunity is now gone.

Depending on the progression and severity of the pandemic, by Labor Day in September — when school campuses hopefully reopen — we may know more the degree to which the working class comes to understand itself as an agent change — and action.

May Days past in Rochester

May 2nd, 2019

May 02, 1937

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, May 02, 1937

Yesterday marked the 135th anniversary of May Day, or International Labor Day. Traditionally, May Day celebrates the international labor movement, in various iterations since 1884. Yesterday, parades and demonstrations were held in a range of cities from St. Petersburg to Seattle.

01 May 1895

Democrat and Chronicle, 01 May 1895

I wondered how, over the decades, Rochester saw May Day. In a non-exhaustive search of the Democrat and Chronicle, I found that Rochester looked at May Day much like other Great Lake cities.

May 02, 1901

May 02, 1901

The first May Day celebration was in 1895, while the last one I found was in 1946.  Basically, over time, the September national holiday, Labor Day, replaced May Day. Ultimately, Labor Day was considered more mainstream; May Day was often associated with left-wing and socialistic leanings.



The 1901 event drew extensive coverage. The Democrat and Chronicle was a relatively conservative, generally Republican newspaper not considered a strong champion of labor. Nonetheless, given that Rochester had a large, pro-labor German population, in the early years of May Day the newspaper offered more-or-less favorable coverage of celebrations and parades.

The ascendancy of the Soviet Union following World War One altered the D & C‘s reporting and editorializing. In 1919, violence occurred at several May Day events, including in Cleveland and Milwaukee, causing conservatives to cast the ceremonies as dangerous. During the 1920’s, the D & C took dimmer views of the celebrations, tinged with apprehension that labor might be sympathetic with the communistic Soviet Union.

(left and center) 1922; (right) 1925

(left and center) 1922; (right) 1925

The years of the Great Depression were the height of May Day celebrations. While the D & C remained a conservative newspaper, coverage of May Day and worker concerns expanded and the reporting tone was more favorable.


(left to right, top to bottom) 1929, 1930, 1933, 1934

May 02, 1935

May 02, 1935

With the advent of the Cold War, Rochester Labor celebrations almost entirely moved to the September holiday. Throughout the Cold War, May Day was perhaps the most important day in the Soviet Union with massive parades in Red Square and military spectacles. The American September holiday — not containing the world international — was considered more nationalist and non-socialistic.



During the Cold War, the D & C ‘s coverage of May Day was critical of “Reds” and focused on acts of dissent, such as that took place in Berlin in 1950.

May 02, 1971

May 02, 1971

This 1971 photo is typical of May Day coverage with unsmiling leaders imposing their wills upon the masses.

In 2012, the Occupy movement resurrected May Day activities. As described by the Socialist Worker, “In the streets for May Day,”(2012), members of Occupy Rochester, the Rochester Labor Council (AFL-CIO), local unions and many local activists came out for a daylong celebration of International Workers Day. More than 100 people participated throughout the day in two separate rallies, a three-hour block of workshops and an evening picnic.


How do union teachers teach about unions?

“What is the working class?” with Thomas Warfield at the Labor Day Parade.

2016 Labor Day Parade. RIT professor Thomas Warfield from “What is the working class?” with Thomas Warfield at the Labor Day Parade.

Mourning for the dead and fighting for the living in Highland Park

2017 Lilac Festival in Highland Park. John Schmidt and Kim Rivers-Van Ness from Mourning for the dead and fighting for the living in Highland Park

2017 Lilac Festival in Highland Park. (l) Gilbert Ortega; (c) Kelsey and Motis; (r) John Bracken from Mourning for the dead and fighting for the living in Highland Park

Politics at the Labor Day Parade

2018 Labor Day Parade. Now US Congressman Joe Morelle (left) and NYS Senator Joe Robach from Politics at the Labor Day Parade

May Days past in Rochester

1971 May Day. Red Square, Moscow, USSR. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, May 2nd, 1971 from May Days past in Rochester

Who are your labor heroes?

2019 Labor Day Parade.  (l) Danielle Mosar and Josh Castle; (r) Claudia and Reyes from Who are your labor heroes?

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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