More than 60 countries – capitalist, socialist, African, Asian, Latin American, European -celebrate May 1st as a day for workers. The United States does not, even though the holiday commemorates events that took place in Chicago USA.
There will be dozens of American labor unions and political organizations that observe the day. But there is no legal holiday designation, as is the case with most countries. Vietnam, for example, has celebrated the holiday since 1913. So do the Philippines, Thailand, and Palestine. South Africa’s Mayday holiday was approved in 1994 as the formal apartheid government was dismantled.
On May 1st, Haiti celebrates Agriculture and Labor Day. Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru also have legal holiday designations. This short list doesn’t include the former Soviet bloc countries and western powers -France, Spain, Germany, etc. They all honor Mayday.
The celebration of Mayday has two primary sources; an ancient, naturalistic root and another, social/political foundation rooted in recent labor history.
Through recorded history, Mayday has been associated primarily with the preservation of fertility, the arrival of warmer weather, and hopes/prayers/rituals for an abundant harvest. As with Christmas, it marks a change of seasons without falling on the respective Solstice or Equinox.
Many histories of the holiday start in the middle – with the pre-Christian European celebrations of Walpurgis (in the Germanic regions) and Beltane (in the Celtic/British areas.) Others cite the Roman festival called Floralia, held in honor of flora, their goddess of flowers. Her popularity led to the establishment of a state-subsidized high priest and bureaucracy to coordinate the celebration rituals.
But since every major Greco-Roman deity had a precursor/foundation in the older Nubian/Egyptian cultures, and since every culture awaits the end of winter, it makes sense that the Mayday celebrations were also pre-European. Currently, the Egyptian holiday of Sham El Nessim is celebrated on the Coptic Christian Easter Monday. It is the 4,000-year-old manifestation of spring’s arrival, Kemetic style. The holiday ritual meals includes (pre-Easter bunny) colored eggs, salt fish, onions, and lettuce. Despite the opposition of the super-powerful Egyptian Muslim clergy, the public continues to celebrate this tradition as a non-religious public holiday.
The May Pole is a frequent element of celebrations. Like the ancient obelisk, it symbolizes fertility in the male community. Dancing around the Maypole is still a major feature of celebrations in the states and in Europe.
MODERN MAYDAY HISTORY
The more modern history of Labor Day is closely tied to the labor union movement, the IWW, and the creation of the fall “Labor Day” celebration. Since at least 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) had lobbied for an 8-hour workday with no reduction in wages. This was intended to reform the 10- or 12-hour workdays then in practice. By 1886, the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, also called the Wobblies) supported the movement. They were the more militant, lower-paid, racially integrated, and internationalist counter to the higher paid, craft-based, more conservative FOTLU, (which later became the American Federation of Labor).
May 1st, 1886 featured one of the largest national walkouts in history, with more than a quarter million workers striking for the 8 hour day. The demonstrations – the strikers and police – were peaceful that day, despite predictions and expectations of major violence On May 3rd however, a striker was killed by police at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. In response, an anti-police brutality rally was called for the following day. It was held at the Haymarket Square. At that very poorly-attended rally, a bomb was thrown at police as they attempted to disperse the crowd. One officer was killed and the police fired wildly into the crowd.
Estimates of the casualties included 7 police deaths and more than 50 injured. Strikers suffered 6-8 dead and 40 injured. Investigators later determined that many police were casualties of their own “friendly fire.” The bomb-thrower was never identified.
The aftermath was worse. An anti-union, anti-immigrant political backlash followed. Union organizers were brutalized, anarchism became a four-letter word, and 8 activists were convicted of murder after a biased, kangaroo court trial. Four men were executed and one committed suicide while awaiting execution. Three were granted clemency after passions died down.
Today the Haymarket martyrs are remembered just about everywhere but in the United States.
According to many sources, the first Monday in September Labor Day Celebration, while having roots in labor union history, was in part created to disassociate American labor from the perceived, “subversive” elements of the Mayday holiday. The concepts of worker solidarity and internationalism were opposed by the business class. The socialist and communist associations of the holiday were also troubling to some. During the cold war/McCarthy era, President Eisenhower designated May 1st as “Loyalty Day” in 1958. President Reagan called the day “Law Day.” Neither concept took hold with the public.