Friday, May 01, 2015

Happy May Day! (International Workers' Day)

In many parts of the world today is May Day, the true “Labor Day.” International Workers’ Day, or May Day, despite its origins in the U.S., is not celebrated in this country. But it is still a holiday in many countries around the world.

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 (1983).

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 known 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.” — American Social History Project, 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.

“An ancient holiday marked by celebrations in praise of spring and by symbolic evocations of fertility, this day perhaps inevitably became revolutionary holiday of the nineteenth-century workers’ movement. As in British artist Walter Crane’s famous May Day drawings (much reprinted in the U.S. Socialist press), the vision of socialism seemed to speak at once to the natural yearnings of emancipation from the winter season and from the wintery epoch of class society.

In May 1886 several hundred thousand American workers marched into international labor history when they demonstrated for the eight-hour day. An unusual and informal alliance between the fledgling AFL [American Federation of Labor], local assemblies of the Knights of Labor, and disparate tendencies within the anarchist movement ignited a pent-up demand for shorter working hours. The social and labor ferment that crested in 1885-86 also marked the maturing of the Knights of Labor into the first meaningful national labor organization in the United States. The leadership of the Knights, however, envisioned the eight-hour day as an educational, political, and evolutionary achievement rather than an agitational and revolutionary one. On the other hand, the infant AFL, soon to molt from the impotent Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, tied its star to the militant eight-hour actions. The third grouping in the labor triad comprised that section of the anarchists, mainly European immigrants, who emphasized trade union work as a vehicle to social revolution.

The uneasy and unsettled coalition targeted May 1, 1886, as the day of industrial reckoning. In Boston, Milwaukee, New York City, Pittsburgh, and especially Chicago, tens of thousands of workers rallied and struck for ‘eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, eight hours for what we will.’ The nation’s newspapers warned that the spirit of the Paris Commune was loose in the land and pointed to specific personalities among the anarchists to prove the point. [….]

Whether the May day would have been a one-time workers’ holiday or ‘forever be remembered,’ in the words of Samuel Gompers, ‘as a second Declaration of Independence,’ is a moot point. The events of a few days later projected it into an international framework and seared the conscience of labor activists ever since. A rally by striking lumbermen near the scene of a labor conflict at the McCormick-Harvester works in suburban Chicago led to a clash with scabs at the famous farm-implement company. Chicago police, already seasoned in labor brutality, mortally wounded several demonstrators.

The Chicago anarchists, who only a few days earlier had organized the peaceful eight-hour parade locally, called for a protest demonstration against the killings. The following night, on May 4, a thousand rallied at Haymarket Square in the city. The mayor of Chicago listened warily in the crowd until a thunderstorm sent His Honor and most of the throng home for the evening. Inexplicably, a large contingent of police seemingly waited for the mayor’s departure to forcibly disperse the remaining 200 demonstrators. As the officers rallied into the depleted group, a bomb was thrown into their ranks. Dozens of policemen were injured and eventually seven died, although some may have perished from their comrades’ panicked shooting. That response led to widespread but undocumented wounding of many nameless protesters.

The media’s failed predictions of violent upheaval for the May Day rallies three days earlier was now easily transferred to the ‘Haymarket Affair.’ The forces of law and order understood that the carnage at Haymarket, regardless of who threw the missile, could discredit the labor movement and eradicated its more radical European appendages through a nascent Red Scare. The ensuing show trial in Chicago blessed the miscegenation of May Day and the Haymarket bombing in the popular mind.

The concept of May Day had meanwhile spread rapidly to the international workers’ movement, one of American labor’s (and radicals’) most important innovations. In 1889 the International Socialist Congress in Paris, with full knowledge of the American precedent, designated May 1 as an eight-hour holiday for workers of the world.” [….] — Scott Molloy, in Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990).

Further Reading:
  • 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. 
    • Hobsbawm, Eric. “The Transformation of Labour Rituals,” in Eric Hobsbawm, Workers: Worlds of Labor. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984: 66-82. 
    • Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 
    • Roediger, David and Franklin Rosemont, eds. Haymarket Scrapbook. Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr, 1986. 
    Image: The May Day poster from the Soviet Union is in the style of Russian Constructivism.  


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