May Day

What Happened to the Radical Workers' Holiday?

by Michelle Cobban

Dissident Voice

May 1, 2003


The fact that workers had it tough in the early years of the American Industrial Revolution is widely taught in schools. Sixteen-hour workdays in dangerous conditions, child labor, exploitation, and accidents were common; then, magically, everything became better in a civilized, twentieth-century way. The forces behind this change are left ambiguous at best, and the radical labor movement isn't discussed--too difficult for young minds, perhaps. And so the visions of masses of militant workers parading through the streets of cities, towns, and villages on May Day is lost in the revision of history.


May Day is not just about the arrival of spring. It is also 1880s workers demanding humane treatment; it is men and women around the world marching in solidarity against the factory owners who would have them work all day, every day but Sunday; it is anarchists, socialists, and leftists of every kind working together within the labor movement. This association of May Day with radicalism is ultimately what led to it being downplayed in contemporary accounts, while Labor Day remains as a state-sanctioned holiday.


The first May Day, in 1886, was a call for eight-hour workdays by the workers in many American cities; it is now mostly associated with the Haymarket Martyrs. A bomb thrown by an unknown person at a labor rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square killed one policeman; authorities rounded up whom they considered to be the leaders of the local labor movement and put them on trial. Mother Jones said of the incident: "The workers asked only for bread and a shortening of the long hours of toil. The agitators gave them visions. The police gave them clubs."


The charge against the accused, eight anarchists, was conspiracy--labor unions were illegal at the time under conspiracy laws. The prosecution summed up their arguments with: "Anarchy is on trial...[These men] are no more guilty than those thousands who follow them...convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society." All were found guilty; four of the eight were hanged, one committed suicide in jail, and the remaining three were freed years later when public opinion turned against the rigged trial.


Because of the chilling effect this event had on labor, the next May Day wasn't observed until 1890. Spurred by a resolution from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the International Socialist Congress, this day saw parades not only in American cities but simultaneous demonstrations throughout the European industrial centers and in Havana, Cuba. The common theme was the demand for guaranteed eight-hour workdays, and to raise awareness of the common class struggle existing in all countries. From that time on, May Day became an annual gathering of the working class in industrial countries.


In the US, Labor Day was started in September of 1882, and quickly became an official holiday at the same time May Day spread throughout the world. Labor Day is a time to celebrate the contributions American workers had given their country, unlike May Day events, which focused on the international class struggle. It remains a patriotic holiday, and compared to the first May Day demonstrations, Labor Day is recognized by relatively staid parades and speeches.


Besides the prominence government recognition gave to Labor Day, other factors led to the diminished importance of May Day in the US. American newspapers stereotyped the May Day revelers as being "wild-eyed agitators;" in contrast, those who participated in Labor Day marches were "sober, clean, quiet." At the turn of the century, the difference between the two holidays was exaggerated; the press emphasized the large percentage of immigrants present in May Day celebrations, while Labor Day was "a demonstration of the honest American workingman." At a time when the foreign born were increasingly viewed with suspicion, this portrayal helped push more conservative labor groups in the US (such as the AFL) to abandon May Day in favor of Labor Day.


But American radicals wouldn't give up. Eugene V. Debs, Socialist Party candidate for US President, stated in 1907: "This is the first and only International Labor Day. It belongs to the working class and is dedicated to the revolution." The Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor union, also rallied around May Day. May Day continued to grow, calling for an end to "imperialist slaughter," throughout WWI and the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.


The fear of socialist revolution increased the anti-communist sentiment in America; in 1919 May Day participants were attacked by police and anti-labor rioters, which led to the destruction of socialist or communist party offices in many cities. Workers encountered difficulty in getting permission for marches, and some cities required that the American flag be carried. Similar attacks or bans on May Day parades became common throughout non-socialist European countries, especially in fascist Italy and Germany.


May Day continued to grow everywhere in the world--Canada, South Africa, China, Japan, and Korea all saw nascent labor movements celebrate May Day. The largest turnouts were in the Soviet Union and Cuba; US media increasingly described May Day as a "commie" event, even though American leftists of all types continued to participate, calling for fairness and equal opportunity on the job. Large-scale demonstrations led to employers recognizing the eight-hour day and forty-hour workweek, among other achievements. But between the Cold War and McCarthyism, participation in May Day events in the US dwindled.


May Day is still celebrated by socialist, communist, and labor organizations in America. May Day 1998 saw a small demonstration in Olympia against the Washington State "anarchy and sabotage" statute, which in 1919 made it illegal for anyone to display banners, flags, or emblems that are perceived to advocate subversion of the US Constitution, federal or state laws. In Seattle, hundreds marched for unionization and better pay for child-care workers, and on the UW campus over 500 participated in the first annual Teach-In on Globalization and Democracy, subtitled "Do Free Markets make Free People?"


It is ironic that while May Day began in America, participation has paled in contrast to the millions of activists who still celebrate May Day around the world. The impetus for May Day still exists; it only needs the spark of organization to flare up again and command the attention of America's corporations.


Michelle Cobban wrote this article for the May 1999 issue of Ruckus, The University of Washington's progressive independent student newsmagazine (http://students.washington.edu/ruckus/index.html). This article appeared in Ruckus


* For more information about May Day and May Day events worldwide visit: http://www.mayweek.ab.ca/


* For a more thorough history of May Day, see May Day: A Short History of the International Workers' Holiday by Philip S. Foner, International Publishers, New York, 1986.




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