May Day’s Roots

For some older Americans, “May Day” brings to mind images of phalanxes of Soviet soldiers, goose-stepping through Red Square behind massive tanks, while millions of onlookers obediently cheer. For some, “May Day” is a pagan holiday, Beltane, more known (and loved) for maypoles or other fertility rituals than for political struggles. For many of us, it means nothing at all.

But May Day, the political version, is an American holiday–one celebrated for the last century everywhere in the world except America, and one whose origins are well worth remembering. Because May Day began as a strike for basic workplace rights we’re now in the process of losing. And that strike was, originally, largely by immigrant workers, which is exactly why immigrants chose May Day, here and around the US, for their annual march.

Chicago, in 1886, was a rapidly growing city, a polyglot of immigrant languages and cultures. On the first May Day–May 1, 1886–“International Workers’ Day” began as a series of general strikes in Chicago and other Midwestern cities for the eight-hour day. Some 340,000 workers participated; it was a campaign that had already been going on strong for quite some time. But the strike took on particular significance when, two days later, police attacked striking workers at McCormick Reaper, on Chicago’s south side. Four workers were killed and over 200 injured. And at a demonstration on the following day, May 4, to protest the police riot, a bomb went off at Chicago’s Haymarket Square–the infamous “Haymarket Massacre” that killed eight police and wounded 60. The bombing led to death sentences for eight leading anarchists, including several German immigrants, convicted with no evidence at all for conspiracy to commit murder.

Three of the anarchists were pardoned before their deaths, the other five posthumously. But the public and police hostility to organized labor that was whipped up over Haymarket meant that, in turn, May Day became an international labor rallying cry for the right of workers to organize in general, and for the eight-hour day in particular. By the end of the decade, May Day was a holiday celebrated by workers and workers’ movements in every industrialized country in the world.

It still is–now, in fact, it’s observed globally. Except, ironically, in the land of the holiday’s birth. The holiday’s burgeoning popularity led Congress, in 1894, to establish “Labor Day” in September to honor American workers–a holiday established, not by ordinary workers themselves as an expression of empowerment, but by big business and their Congressional apologists as a way to try to dictate what workers were and weren’t allowed to celebrate. One day belonged to the workers; the other 365 to big business, and we were to work as many hours of those days as business pleased.

The strategy failed, of course. Eventually. It took another entire generation of struggle, but by 1912, federal workers were granted the eight-hour day; and in 1917, while America was desperate for the cooperation of unions in the war effort, the Eight Hour Act became law. And there, one would think, the matter was settled.

Okay, quick: Do you actually work only eight hours in a day? Only 40 hours in a week? Five days?

Not very many of us do, any longer. We stay longer in the office, we take work home with us, we take work everywhere with us, because at some level we fear that if we don’t, either the company will fail or it will replace us with people who’ll make those sacrifices. Nor, in the land that gave birth to May Day, do workers here get anywhere close to the vacation or sick day benefits we get in other industrialized countries. And let’s not even talk about health care coverage, which isn’t even linked to one’s workplace in most of the industrialized world–it’s accepted as a universal need and right. Here, our system has already rendered health care too expensive to obtain without insurance. Now, it’s denying more and more of the workforce health insurance that covers meaningful parts of the cost of actually getting sick – or, for millions, any health insurance at all. A health care “reform” that chipped away at a few of the edges of this catastrophe was bitterly fought by the corporations who most benefit from this mess, and their allies in Congress and the courts. Meanwhile, Income for most working families has been dropping for over a generation. And for all of these effective losses in compensation for our work, we’re still working harder and longer hours than our grandparents.

And that, of course, is for the few of us who still have regulr jobs.

It’s not too different now, really, from 1886. Then, as now, big business was exploiting the desperation and relative powerlessness of cheap immigrant labor, and in the process trying to depress the wages and establish exploitative precedents for all workers. Then, as now, much of the rest of the public feared and distrusted a part of the labor force that often didn’t even speak English. Then, as now, the immigrants had finally had enough. And marched, and struck.

May Day is a day not only to reclaim a holiday, but to make linkages: between immigrant rights, economic and trade policies that have destroyed the economies of Mexico and other poorer countries, and the policies that have massively enriched a few elite Americans while screwing the rest of us; between illegal and unpopular wars, the lack of government money for basic social services, the high cost of housing and food, the privatization of the military, the erosion of educational opportunities, and (once again) the enrichment of that same elite; and between all the various movements that require resistance and grass roots solidarity with each other in order to challenge the power those elites wield.

Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never has; it never will. Happy May Day.

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