May Day Resurrected

Another May Day has come and gone, and most Americans never noticed. It wasn’t always like this. In decades past, thousands of workers of different ages, ethnicities and genders celebrated the first of May by marching in support of worker rights. Workers traditionally wore red on May Day to show unity in their struggle against the power of capital and to remember the blood shed by thousands of workers in the struggle for human dignity. To many Americans, May Day undoubtedly conjures unpleasant visions of the May Day celebrations of military prowess in the former Soviet Union. But such displays only obscure the fact that May Day was born in the U.S.A.

American workers did not always accept the existence of capitalism as natural. The centralization of capital in the late nineteenth century exacerbated already terrible working conditions. Workers were regularly killed and maimed on the job; workdays of 12 to 16 hours were typical; company housing and the company store kept workers in virtual servitude as the little money they earned went right back to the company. As for job security, talk against the boss will get you fired and thrown out into the streets. These conditions provided fertile ground for workers to embrace the ideas of socialism and anarchism that circulated in immigrant communities.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the precursor to the American Federation of Labor, called for a general strike to take place on May 1, 1886, in support of an eight-hour working day – without a reduction in pay. On that day, over 300,000 thousand workers across the United States walked off their jobs. In Chicago alone more than 40,000 workers went on strike. Business interests and the police responded with violence. On May 3rd, police and armed Pinkertons beat picketing workers outside the McCormack Reaper Works in Chicago, killing two and injuring many more. The following day someone threw a bomb at a peaceful rally at Haymarket Square, prompting the police to fire into the crowd. More violence ensued. Seven police and two workers died. Dozens more suffered injuries.

The world watched as the state of Illinois arrested, tried, and convicted eight anarchist leaders of conspiracy. Only two of the arrested were present, and they were in full view when the bomb exploded, so they were not charged with throwing the bomb. Rather, they were prosecuted for their speech and political beliefs. Seven received a death sentence. Four were hanged, a fifth committed suicide, and three others were pardoned six years later. Out of respect for the Haymarket Martyrs and the workers’ struggle, American workers began showing their power through mass demonstrations every May 1. In 1889, the socialist Second International in Paris established May 1st as International Workers Day, a day recognized today in over 75 countries throughout the world — but not in the United States.

Following the Haymarket massacre, government, business, and the media launched America’s first Red Scare by waging war on anarchists, socialists, immigrants, and unions. Social tensions remained high when the police and military killed thirty striking workers during the Pullman Strike of 1894. The possibility of broader worker riots and even an insurrection prompted President Cleveland to create a special day to commemorate workers. To avoid tying the day to the International Socialist movement and Haymarket massacre, Cleveland picked the first Monday of September as Labor Day, a day to acknowledge workers. But many workers across the world and in the United States still celebrated May Day. Later, during the cold war years, President Eisenhower further undercut the ideals of May Day by declaring May 1 as a day of national dedication to the principles of government under law. In 1961 Congress made it official. In the United States, May 1 is now known as Law Day.

American workers have made great strides since that first May Day, but now our country is going backwards as attacks on labor intensify. A number of state legislatures have passed or on the verge of passing laws that wipe out a hundred years of child labor protections. And in just the last ten years, 21 state legislatures have enacted “Right to Work” laws, Michigan being the only state among them to rescind theirs. Then there is the Janus decision, which is crippling public sector unions. And the PRO Act, along with its earlier versions that would protect the right to organize, has been stalled in Congress for decades. Nowadays, Labor Day has morphed into an end-of-summer weekend that has little to do with labor. It’s time for American workers — across occupations, gender, race, ethnicity, and the other lines that sometimes divide us — to demonstrate their power. It’s time to bring back May Day.

Sidney Plotkin is a Professor of Political Science, Margaret Stiles Halleck Chair of Social Science, at Vassar College. He is the author of many articles and several books, including Veblen's America: The Conspicuous Case of Donald J. Trump (Anthem Press, 2018). William E. Scheuerman is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at SUNY Oswego. He is the retired President of the National Labor College and past President of United University Professions, the nation's largest higher ed union. A long-time labor activist, Scheuerman has written several books and numerous articles in both scholarly and popular journals. His most recent book is A New American Labor Movement: The Decline of Collective Bargaining and the Rise of Direct Action (SUNY Press, 2021). Read other articles by Bill Scheuerman and Sid Plotkin.