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May Day
May 1

By Sarah Lane
Mar 1, 2010, 10:18 PST


May 1 - May Day:
The Displacement of Labor Day

If you threw a Labor Day barbeque on May first, your neighbors would probably think you were nuts, but people around the world wouldn’t. May Day, the first day of May, is International Labor Day. What began in pagan Europe as a celebration of the first spring planting, the end of winter, the return of the sun, and fertility of the soil, eventually evolved into an event that would find anarchists, socialists, and leftists working together. Why haven’t you heard of this International Labor Day? Most likely because of the negative connotations associated with the radical events that took place in the United States between May first and May fourth in the year 1886. The modern day celebration of this working class holiday originally evolved from the struggle for an 8-hour workday. Sounds like a normal thing to ask for right? Unfortunately the capitalists didn’t think so and what began as a peaceful rally against police brutality, ended with the resounding echo of a bomb and the wrongful deaths of too many people.

Keep in mind when you read about this set of events, that according to the Bill of Rights, “The people have a right to assemble in a peaceable manner to consult for the common good, to make known their opinions to their representatives and apply for redress of grievances.”

The ‘working class’ has existed for some 10,000 years, but ‘free labor’, or the modern working class, is only about 700 years old. The average Joe in the late 19th century would work 12 to 16 hour workdays in extremely harsh conditions with frequent accidents on the job. The political and legal system of the time didn’t require job sites to be sanitary and didn’t recognize any form of child labor laws. Because of this, on May 1, 1886, the American Federation of Labor declared a national strike to demand an 8-hour workday and 350,000 workers across the country participated. On top of the 8-hour workday, they demanded unity against racism, national chauvinism, and imperialistic war. They carried with them the knowledge that they had the ability to organize and strike based on the Constitutional right mentioned earlier. The common hustle and bustle of the nation’s cities stopped dead and businesses were forced to close.

By May 3, the number of workers on strike in Chicago alone was about 65,000. On that day, several people came together to form a peaceful rally at McCormick Harvester Plant, but were fired upon randomly by police officers. Several were injured and one killed. The next day, May 4, another group gathered to mull over and protest the previous days events in a place called Haymarket Square. When police showed up, a bomb suddenly exploded on the scene and Policeman Mathias J. Degan was killed instantly. Shots were fired in all directions by who knows whom exactly and the end result was injuries to over 60 people and death to seven officers. It was recorded later that the injuries suffered by the police were caused by their own bullets.

Although the bomb thrower was never identified, all well-known anarchists and socialists of the time were rounded up and arrested. Eight labor leaders were among the people arrested, although seven of them weren’t even present at Haymarket Square during the riot. Judge Joseph E. Gary imposed the death sentence on seven of the men, and the eighth received 15 years in prison. Of those first seven, four were hanged, one committed suicide, and two were commuted from death to imprisonment for life.

News spread worldwide almost immediately, especially once the final words of one of the labor leaders, August Spies, were reiterated. He stated, “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.” By 1889, the Socialist International had declared May 1 as an International Working Class Holiday and a day of demonstrations by various labor movements in commemoration of the Haymarket martyrs. By the 1890’s, some people were celebrating May 1 as Labor Day, while others still celebrated it in early September. May Day was celebrated for the first time in Russia, Brazil, and Ireland in 1891, China in 1920, and India in 1927. By 1947, the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars renamed May 1 “Loyalty Day” as a weapon to encourage citizens to reaffirm their commitments to their home states.

May Day rallies are still held today, but most of them are held overseas. The historic significance of May Day has unfortunately been forgotten in America, or maybe it was brushed under the carpet due to the unsettling events that surrounded its inception. The subject is one of continuing controversy, but you’ll occasionally see red flags held up on this day to symbolize the blood of the working class martyrs in their battle for worker's rights. Ironically, May Day in ancient times was banned repeatedly for being a holiday of common people, but has since been reclaimed by that same group. What remains as a testimony of the tumultuous events in 1886, are the words of August Spies chiseled in stone on the monument in Chicago dedicated to the Haymarket martyrs.

Source:       Chicago Public Library, Michael Thomas, May Day Committee

Additional Learning Links

May Day Past to Present

May Week

This site was created to celebrate May Day, the International Working Class Holiday. Launched in 1998, it was the first page dedicated to May Day on the web. The website has an online art show, history of May Day, message board, and links to events in Edmonton, across Canada, and around the world.
Source:       May Day Committee

May Day in the USA
Read “May Day in the USA: A Forgotten History,” a powerful account of the events that transpired.
Source:       Michael Thomas

May Day, The Workers Day

“May Day, The Workers’ Day, Born in the Struggle for the Eight-Hour Day,” in an article by Andy McInerney that was published in Liberation & Marxism, issue no. 27, in the Spring of 1996.
Source:       Workers World

‘Round the Maypole
From another perspective, May Day is celebrated around the world as a festival of happiness, joy, and the coming of summer. Teachers can use the observance of May Day as a rich source of multicultural activities that can complement a May curriculum.
Source:       Instructional Materials Center

May Day

The pagan origins of May Day state that the Mayday custom was a rite of passage that marked an important seasonal transition in the year. Putting a maypole up involved taking a growing tree from the woods and bringing it to the village to mark the oncoming season of the summer.
Source:       Planet Internet

May Day, What Happened...?
What happened to the radical workers’ day? Find out from beginning to end in this thought provoking article.
Source:       Michelle Cobban

Haymarket Riot

The Haymarket Tragedy
“On May 3, 1886, violence erupted at the McCormick Reaper Works during an assembly of strikers. That evening a small group of anarchists met to plan a rally the next day in response to the McCormick incident.” Little did they know it would only get worse.
Source:       Chicago Public Library

May Day Remembered
This links you to several articles on the Haymarkey Tragedy from the Illinois Labor History Society.
Source:       The Chicago-Kent College of Law

Poem by Susan Kling

You will no doubt remember the events of the Haymarket Tragedy after reading this poem dedicated to that fateful day.
Source:       The Chicago-Kent College of Law

Pardon of the Haymarket Prisoners
Read the how and why of Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoning the Haymarket prisoners.
Source:       The Chicago-Kent College of Law

City Plaque in Chicago
Here is the text and photo of the bronze plaque installed by the City of Chicago to commemorate the Haymarket Tragedy of 1886. It can be found embedded in the sidewalk on the east side of Desplaines Avenue, a few steps north of Randolph Street.
Source:       The Chicago-Kent College of Law

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