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)

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