(Editor’s note:District Council 37, New York’s largest public sector union will be one of the organizations participating in this evening’s May Day celebrations. They will gather at West 61st Street, and march to Trump Tower)
The modern history of May Day is closely tied to the labor union movement and, indirectly, to 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 that were then the norm. The Industrial Workers of the World (also called the Wobblies) supported the movement. They were the more militant, lower-paid, racially integrated, and internationalist alternative to the higher paid, mostly “lily white” (apologies to the lilies), 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 Chicago. 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 while police were attempting to disperse the crowd. The police fired wildly into the group of protesters.
Casualties included 7 police deaths and more than 50 injured. Protesters suffered 6-8 dead and 40 injured. Investigators later determined that many police were casualties of their own “friendly fire.”
The aftermath was worse. An anti-union and 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, and May Day are remembered just about everywhere but in the United States. Some American labor unions and political organizations 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 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.
According to many sources, the September Labor Day Celebration, while having roots in labor union history, was in part created to disassociate American labor from the internationalist elements of the Mayday holiday. The concepts of worker solidarity and internationalism were opposed by the business class. The socialist – democratic and totally American – associations of the holiday were also troubling. During the cold war/McCarthy era, President Eisenhower designated May 1st as “Loyalty Day” in 1958. And President Reagan called the day “Law Day.” Neither concept took hold with the public.