Thursday, May 01, 2008

May Day: International Workers' Day


In many parts of the world today is May Day, the true “Labor Day.”

Peggy McGuinness noted a couple of years ago in her May Day post at Opinio Juris, that “International Workers Day, despite its origins in the U.S., is not celebrated here. But it is still a holiday in many countries. And it is no coincidence that today [i.e., May 1, 2006] was chosen to be boycott day (El Gran Paro Americano) for US immigrants.”

As Jeremy Brecher writes in Strike! (San Francisco, CA: Straight Arrow Books, 1972), “In 1884, a dying organization, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution that ‘eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1, 1886.’”

Opposed by organized labor’s leadership (e.g. the Knights of Labor), “the idea of a general strike for the eighth-hour day had caught the imagination of tens of thousands of workers.” Demonstrations up to the date were followed by strikes that began on May 1, 1886 and continued for several days afterward. The hysteria in the wake of the Haymarket bombing “gave the signal for law and order forces throughout the country to act.” Brecher concludes that, although a “pattern of demoralization and compromise” reverberated throughout the country, it is worth recalling that “the mass strike of 1886 was an attempt by the new class of industrial workers to use their power to gain some control over the conditions of their life and work. [….] The eight-hour strike was both an assertion that the worker was a human being whose life should not be consumed in toil, and an attack on the deliberate policy of keeping hours long and unemployment high in order to get the most work for the least wages.”

The idea of a May Day celebration for workers spread quickly to the international workers’ movement:

“In 1889 the International Socialist Conference in Paris, with full knowledge of the American precedent, designated May 1 as an eight-hour holiday for the workers of the world. [….] Elaborate ceremonies soon evolved, with songs, banners, uniforms, even dioramas to mark the date, often with drawings of the Haymarket victims uplifted as martyrology.” (See Malloy on ‘May Day’ below)

Of course the auspicious nature of this date goes back to celebratory spring festivals and is still an excuse for Morris dancing: in the words of Emma Goldman, “If I can't dance, I won't be part of your revolution!”

Eric Hobsbawm writes that

“From the start the occasion attracted and absorbed ritual and symbolic elements, notably that of a quasi-religious or numinous celebration (‘Maifeier’), a holiday in both sense of the word. […] Red flags, the only universal symbols of the [socialist labor] movement, were present from the start, but so, in several countries, were flowers: the carnation in Austria, the red (paper) rose in Germany, sweet briar and poppy in France, and the may, symbol of renewal, increasingly infiltrated, and from the mid-1990s replaced by the lily-of-the-valley, whose associations were unpolitical. Little is known about this language of flowers which, to judge by the May Day poems in socialist literature also, was spontaneously associated with the occasion. It certainly struck the key-note of May Day, a time of renewal, growth, hope and joy (we recall the girl with the flowering branch of may associated in popular memory with 1891 May Day shootings at Fourmies). Equally, May Day played a major part in the development of the new socialist iconography of the 1890s in which, is spite of the expected emphasis on struggle, the note of hope, confidence and the approach of a brighter future—often expressed in metaphors of plant growth—prevailed.”
---Eric Hobsbawm, “Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870-1914,” in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 284-285.

"Writing in the midst of the devastation of the 1877 railroad strikes, a St. Louis newspaper noted: 'The country was in a feverish state of excitement from Boston to San Francisco, from the Lakes to the Gulf.' That feverish state would recur repeatedly over the next two decades. Between 1877 and 1898 working people undertook a series of fierce battles with their economic and political antagonists. Craft unionists, Knights of Labor, Farmers' Alliance members, Populists, socialists, and anarchists struggled for a more egalitarian society and a more just economic system. As masses of working people shook their collective fist at the growing visibility of unbridled privilege, industrial capitalists dug in their heels in an organized defense of their wealth and power.

These struggles peaked twice: first in 1886, in an eruption of activism, organizing, and confrontation that came to be know as the Great Upheaval; and second in the 1890s, when Populism and the Homestead and Pullman strikes linked farmers and workers together in a loose coalition of resistance. At root, these epic confrontations of the 1880s and 1890s were working people's forthright responses to the unprecedented economic and political changes wrought by the new industrial order."
---Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's Economy, Politics, Culture & Society, Vol. Two: From the Gilded Age to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992): 109-110.

Please see:

American Social History Project (Herbert G. Gutman, Director, and Stephen Brier, Editor) (various contributors). Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's Economy, Politics, Culture & Society, Vol. One: From Conquest and Colonization through Reconstruction and the Great Uprising of 1877 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989).

American Social History Project (Herbert G. Gutman, Director, and Stephen Brier, Editor) (various contributors). Who Built America? Working People and the Nations's Economy, Politics, Culture & Society, Vol. Two: From the Gilded Age to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992).

Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Foner, Philip S. May Day: A Short History of the International Workers' Holiday 1886-1986. (New York: International Publishers, 1986).

Green, James. Death in the Haymarket.... (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006).

“May Day,” by Scott Molloy, in Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, eds., The Encyclopedia of the American Left (New York: Garland, 1990): 455-457.

Roediger, Dave and Franklin Rosemont, eds. Haymarket Scrapbook (Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr Publ. Co., 1986).

“The Transformation of Labour Rituals,” in Hobsbawm’s Workers: Worlds of Labor (New York: Pantheon, 1985): 66-82.

See too this at Crooked Timber.

3 Comments:

Blogger jslater said...

Excellent post. On a bit of a tangent, part of it reminded me how of much I liked "The Invention of Tradition" when I read it long ago. I should probably read it again.

5/01/2008 4:17 PM  
Blogger jslater said...

"of how much I liked," it should have read.

5/01/2008 4:17 PM  
Anonymous Brad said...

It went from a workers rights day to a "let Hispanics piss on our country day." www.goodoleboybumperstickers.com

5/02/2008 6:37 PM  

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