From the American Scene: May Day in Toronto; Yesteryear and Now (*)

Article excerpt

SPADINA AVENUE, the main street of the needle trades in Toronto, looks very much the same as it did ten, twenty, thirty years ago. The same kind of old-fashioned haggling still goes on between the employers and the handful of tense harassed business agents -- former pressers, operators, and finishers -- who guard the interests of Toronto's twelve thousand needle workers. And there is the same vigorous thumping on the cutting table when union agreements come up for renewal -- to such good effect that wages and working conditions have been maintained despite the flooding of the labor market by the tide of job-hungry post-World War II refugees. There has been one change, however.

May Day, which before World War II was a mandatory holiday in every needle-trade union contract, has disappeared together with the parades that used to tie up Toronto's downtown traffic for an entire morning. This was no idle fanfare, but a demonstration of real militancy, and any needle-trade worker caught in a factory on the first day of May Day was fined by the union fifteen dollars on the spot.

Ask any of the union men (as I did) what happened to May Day and you get a kind of standard bellicose answer. "In case you think the bosses had anything to do with it, you're wrong, my friend," said the business agent of one of the large locals eyeing me as though I had no business remembering that far back. "It's just that we got mixed up with the wrong crowd. First, it was the Communists, and as if that wasn't enough we had the Nazis on our hands too. They declared May Day a National Socialist holiday, and sent their storm troopers out on parades. When Stalin and Hitler signed the pact we decided we'd had enough. The whole thing had become a bad joke." Then he added quickly, "The parade business I mean. The real spirit of the day, no amount of phonies can squelch. You come around here tonight and you'll see a real meeting, a small meeting maybe, but you'll find out what May Day really stands for."

I took his advice and came back the same evening to the Labor Lyceum, an old brick building which houses the needle-trade unions in Toronto. The fifty-odd men and women in the room were mostly middle-aged, long associated with the arbeiter kreisn, with labor circles. There was a quiet, studious quality about the group as if it had come together for a lecture rather than for a May Day feierung as the poster on the door of the Labor Lyceum proclaimed. The chairman added to this impression with his patient manner and his cultured Russian Yiddish. With a touch of wistful humor he welcomed the massn. In a more serious vein, he went on to assure the assemblage that dwindling numbers did not matter so long as there remained a core of determined people prepared to carry forward the meaning of May Day.

He presented the first participant of the evening, an actor who had once been a minor member of the famous Vilner Trupe, but now makes a bare livelihood the year round through such odd jobs as camp directing, announcing chores on the Yiddish Hour, and producing an occasional shule concert. He launched out on a reading of Peretz's "Amol Iz Geven a Malach" (Once There Was an Angel). This dramatic recital, about a band of early revolutionaries ambushed by Cossacks in the midst of an illegal May Day celebration, was rendered with restraint but with intense artistry well attuned to the small, intimate audience. The artist beamed as he sat down and acknowledged the warm applause from his seat without getting up.

The chairman waited for the acclaim to subside. In glowing terms he then introduced a wizened man, who stood up and walked briskly toward the piano at the front of the room. He seemed quite indifferent to the outburst of clapping which had greeted him when he rose. He adjusted the stool and sat down, eyeing the battered, dusty piano with open displeasure, and went into a medley of labor songs. Each tune was banged out with an unshaded mechanical clatter as though by a player-piano. …