May Day: The Real Meaning

By John F. Henry

In the United States, the real meaning of May Day has been largely forgotten. To be sure, there is a “Labor Day,” a time for picnics and various festivities, but May 1 has been converted—not without reason and not without malice—into “Law Day.” In 1921, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, May Day was renamed “Americanization Day.” In 1958, May Day became “Loyalty Day,” and later that year, President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 “Law Day.”

What a travesty, and what a repudiation of the original May Day, a day that should be remembered and celebrated by all those who labor for a wage or salary.

May Day celebrates the struggle—long and often bloody—for the 8-hour day. While this now seems remote and rather archaic, in the 19th century, the 8-hour day was a rallying point for the vast majority of workers who put in 10, 12, or more hours per day, six days a week.

On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers across the United States shut down the machines and walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, 40,000 went on strike with socialists and anarchists in the leadership. More workers continued to strike until the numbers grew to nearly 100,000. Two days later, violence broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works, an aggression precipitated by Chicago police, acting in the interests of McCormick, a notable capitalist of the day.

For months, police and Pinkerton agents beat and attempted to intimidate picketing workers. A rally was called in Haymarket Square. Someone, we still don’t know who (possibilities include a disgruntled worker or police agent), threw a bomb and all hell broke loose. In the aftermath of the ensuing melee, anarchist leaders were arrested and charged with the crime—though most were not even present when the bomb was thrown. Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg were arrested and convicted of murder. On November 11, 1887, Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fisher were hanged. Louis Lingg ostensibly committed suicide.

In 1890, the Second International declared May Day as an international celebration to commemorate the “Haymarket Martyrs” and to continue the fight for the 8-hour day. There was a time when tens of millions of workers walked off the job in international solidarity. Indeed, in the 1930’s “a million” walked Fifth Avenue to demonstrate their opposition to the prevailing economic system.

It is time, indeed, past time, to reclaim May 1 as International Workers Day. Workers in the US, whether miners, factory operative, clerks, teachers, civil servants, need to join others throughout the world to help galvanize a renewed movement to assert their rights, to demand their economic well-being, to claim simple justice. It is time to say, “Enough!” The monied “1 percent” has been in the uncontested driver’s seat long enough. Let us return to the days of labor militancy, of labor democracy. Let’s restore May 1 as the real May Day. As Mother Jones would have it: “Pray for the dead; fight like hell for the living.”

For further reading, see the short but insightful Philip Foner, May Day. (New York: International Publishers, 1986)

5 Responses to May Day: The Real Meaning

  1. Thank you SO much for this. Tonight I sat down to compose a flyer about the Haymarket Martyrs to distribute at tomorrow’s rally. Thought I’d check out the latest from UMKC economics – and, wow, there was the one-page flier already done and better than anything I could have written. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. The “American Dream” of the upwardly mobile, who have been convinced by Prosperity Godspellers that they, like Joel Osteen, will rise (or have their children rise) into the ranks of the 1%, because “God wants them to be successful” and because their self-righteous bonding with the 1% will bring them this “grace of Prosperity God.” For this reason, upwardly mobile Americans have contempt for “labor”–the class they despise and from which they distance themselves at all costs.

    Decades of 1% “American Dream” propaganda has been pushed into the hearts and minds of the 99%, in order to make the 99% DREAD identification with “Workers/Laborers;” and this is especially so in the South. This has worked like a charm, since the American 99% have learned to equate their “status” in society with the quantity of money/material wealth they possess and can flaunt, “proving their superority” to others. Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class” is the very portrait of American society, revealing the insecurity, even sense of shame, of the 99%, which drives the 99% to WORSHIP MONEY and those who have it.

    The “criminogenic environment” and “perverse incentives” of the “Finance Economy” are but a symptoms of an entire culture driven desperately to escape the “politics of shame” in America, which is the scourge applied to the bent backs of the 99% by the 1%–the People of No Mercy–in order to keep this System of Cruelty intact. As Balzac averred, “behind every great fortune is a great crime.” America has been the most fertile ground for criminal enterprise ever devised by the Global 1%, for the criminal reputation of the Power Brokers is forgotten in but one generation of “success,” as the whitewashed, glorified progeny of arch criminals move into politics, Big Business, O&G, banking, and brokerage. Positioned, they become kings. For, in America, “Winning is the ONLY thing,” Q.E.D. from generation to generation.

    Now, more than ever, when the out-of-shame deck is stacked to highest heaven, the “American Dream” is to win “God’s Lottery” or the “Republican Identity Politics Lottery,” or whatever petty lottery may be offered in their States, usually “to fund education.” To “American Dreamers,” even imagining themselves in the lower ranks, as “Workers/Labor” is anathema. The primal dread of status-seeking Americans is to be pushed to the bottom of the ladder, where the cruel “politics of shame” is pressed to the utmost. It is for this very reason that American “racism,” and the ready acceptance of “slave labor” to profit the 1% will NOT go away. The “politics of shame” is a Master Class whip that lashes “American Dreamers” daily, so that they will continue to dream and to comply with the fraud of the 1%, deluded in their desperate ambition to rise to 1% heaven, as they assist the 1% by “voting” for 1% interests, as they keep those Other “Workers/Laborers” safely at the bottom of the ladder, in their place, “far away” from the strivers in co-conspiracy with their cruel masters.

    “American Dreamers” act out the petty bourgeois melodrama of Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class” in desperate striving, and in desperate hating of the dreaded “Laborer”–the “Socialist” as a four-letter word. They follow the ultraconservative “Evangelical Prosperity Gospel” to the nth degree, ardently practicing their Capitalist Religion of Riches on Earth, Riches promising eternal leisure high on the hog, which includes keeping “women in their place” at hearth, bed, nursery, desk, and kitchen in order to assist the Paterfamilias striver to 1% Heaven. Religiously, these “American Dreamers” REVERE the “rich” on earth: their heroes.

    Mr. Henry, given these facts, and given the Power and Glory of the 1% in America today, do you think it is likely that “American Dreamers” will honor “May Day” as you suggest they might, no matter how down and out they be? For them to face and admit that they have aided and abetted their ruin out of vanity and folly, that they have so readily been conned, exploited, defrauded, and swindled by their “Heroes” is to live in shame, Mr. Henry. To “American Dreamers” shame is reserved for the poor/dark/female, those “meant to be” at the bottom of the ladder, far away from the deluded dreamers now more desperate than ever.

    In “THE IRON HEEL” Jack London tells the eternal tale of the long con and the dreaming marks. Only great minds of the 1%, like FDR who “betrayed his caste” and welcomed the hatred of enemies of the 99%, can turn this tide in America. Know your market, Mr. Henry, know your market.

    • Wonderful!! Too bad our wage earning dreamers and those under the heel and the underemployed cannot read this. But I fear it would be lost on most so ingrained is the training. They would not admit it. But they give it away. Many do not bother to vote. After all Rush is probably right. The republicans know how to fix it, those same republicans who gather up billions in each family out in the Hamptons.

  3. “Let’s restore May 1 as the real May Day.’

    Don’t you mean “the real Labor Day”?

  4. Good to see a post from Professor Henry. Would love to see more stuff from him, especially on history.