The Journal Gazette
Sunday, April 28, 2019 1:00 am

Party for Burmese, Hispanic workers

May Day celebration planned for Saturday

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Burmese refugees have adapted to foreign food, language and climate as they've settled in Fort Wayne.

But they've been unable to wrap their minds around the American custom of celebrating workers during the first weekend in September. 

Like many others worldwide, the natives of the country now known as Myanmar celebrate International Workers' Day on May 1, an annual observance that traces its origins to the U.S. in 1884. That's when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions pressured employers to end inhumane working conditions by declaring that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886.”

More than 300,000 workers walked out on strike that day and thousands more joined them in following days, effectively forcing the change. May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more, according to, the website for the History Channel.

The Burmese Workers' Circle, the Hispanic Workers' Circle and parent group The Workers' Project will share the day's history and discuss global worker issues when they celebrate May Labor Day on Saturday at the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 166 union hall.

The event will include education sessions and a panel discussion in the morning and early afternoon. Then they'll bring out food and music as the gathering transitions into a late afternoon and early evening celebration.

Tun Oo is among the event's planners.

“Burmese workers are working hard everywhere,” he said in a phone interview. “I wanted to pay tribute.”

Tom Lewandowski, executive director of The Workers' Project, was in the meetings when local Burmese broached the idea of organizing a May event.

“My reaction was: Thank you for giving us back our holiday,” he said. “There are two Labor Days, and both of them are legitimate.”

Modest start

Organizing another annual event wasn't on Lewandowski's to-do list.

The local community organizer and former president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, has his hands full with several ongoing efforts. They include rallying volunteers and donations of cash, food and drinks for the annual Labor Day Picnic at Headwaters Park.

Since the 2016 shakeup of the Central Labor Council, the picnic has been a partnership of The Workers' Project and the Central Labor Council. The event attracts thousands downtown each year.

Even so, he wasn't willing to rain on enthusiasm for a May Day-themed event. Instead, Lewandowski encouraged members of the Burmese Workers' Circle to take ownership of the gathering and invite members of the Hispanic Workers' Circle to collaborate.

“We're starting modestly and with a different core of organizers,” he said.

Lewandowski does see a slight difference in the occasions. The September holiday celebrates the dignity of workers, including asking about their experience in the local economy, he said, while the May holiday combines celebration with strategic planning.

“Our goal is to educate and activate each other all the while having fun making serious solidarity grow,” the group said on its flier for May Labor Day.

Saturday's event will begin with a discussion about the global economy and transition to ways local workers can improve their workplace. Because of limited space, the education portion of the day is open to Workers' Project members and prospective members.

“Workers around the world are grappling with the effects of globalization and the inequality it has brought,” Lewandowski said.  

He believes local employers based overseas should comply with worker protections included in national accords their home countries have signed. That's at a minimum. If U.S. standards are higher, the employers should meet those.

Morton Marcus, a retired Indiana University economist, is scheduled to participate in the discussion.

“This is very important because the labor movement in the United States had tremendous positive influence in our economy,” he said. But Marcus also said today's international labor organizations have become bureaucratic and sluggish, losing their impact and influence.

He applauds the multiethnic local effort, especially because employers can play one group of immigrants against another, threatening to replace employees if they complain about poor pay and working conditions.

“This is a very positive thing that's happening in Fort Wayne,” he said.

Oo sees the potential for economic strength in cooperation.

“My hope,” he said, “is to unite these main stakeholders – the employers, the government officials and the workers.”

Out of favor 

May Labor Day will include Mexican and Central and South American food for lunch and Burmese food for dinner, giving organizers an opportunity to share their cultures.

Lewandowski, who is more seasoned at planning large events, also has a pizza joint on standby for Saturday – just in case.

“We're waiting to see how many people turn out and how much food we need because it's our first effort,” he said.

The celebration will include ceremonial Burmese dancing and Mexican folklore dancing.

Bill Klemme, a member of the Hispanic Workers' Circle and retired IPFW Spanish professor, has contributed to the event's planning. 

The group responded enthusiastically when the Burmese invited members to collaborate on May Day planning.

Local Hispanics, too, are accustomed to celebrating the worker holiday.

Klemme said the holiday fell out of favor in the U.S. because during the Cold War the Soviet Union embraced the day and celebrated with military parades in Moscow's Red Square.

Marcus believes the concept behind May Day – the goal of organizing and celebrating workers – should be embraced. But he's not sure how formal that acceptance should be.

“I think,” he said, “we have enough legal holidays.”

If you go

What: May Labor Day, a gathering to celebrate workers

Who: The Workers' Project and affiliates the Burmese Workers' Circle and Hispanic Workers' Circle

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday – education sessions and panel discussion for Workers' Project members and those interested in joining the group; 4 to 8 p.m. celebration with food, music and dancing

Where: Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 166 union hall, 2930 W. Ludwig Road

Admission: Free but space is limited for the education sessions; call ahead if you want to attend the early event

For more information: Contact The Workers' Project at 260-483-3355

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