Today, almost every major industrial nation is celebrating International Workers’ Day, a holiday based on the 1886 Haymarket Riot by immigrant workers in Chicago. It was a major historical event which involved freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to free assembly, the right to a fair trial by a jury of peers and the right of workers to organize and fight for things like the eight-hour day. It should be a huge celebration here too.
But it isn’t… Since its hard-fought inception, there’s been a concerted attempt to smother the true historical significance of our May Day with an overlay of alternate “American”-themed traditions.
If you were a child of the 60’s, May Day was the strange yearly ritual that required your whole elementary school class to re-enact a medieval Celtic fertility right. You would be assembled around a May pole, clutching an attached ribbon, ready to find out which one of your classmates didn’t understand the concept of weaving in and out.
Or, you might remember “Loyalty Day” speeches and parades during the Cold War, serving both as a reaffirmation of patriotism and a counter-demonstration to the American Communist Party’s May Day rallies. Loyalty Day activities lagged during the Vietnam War. In 1968, while 5,000 marched in New York City’s parade, more than 87,000 attended a simultaneous anti-war rally in Central Park. After that war, “Loyalty Day” parades became a small-town Americana activity and now seems to be mostly celebrated by veterans’ organizations.
Brief History of the Haymarket Affair and May Day. When industrialization took off in the late 1800s after the Civil War, workers organized into unions and joined pro-labor organizations in order to gain bargaining power, elect sympathetic politicians, and generally protect their interests. One of the earliest rallying points for labor organizations was the fight for the eight- hour work day. In the 1880s most workers still worked a daily shift of 10 or more hours, six days a week (or half a day on Saturday).
In Chicago, thousands of overworked and underappreciated immigrants (in this case, Germans and Bohemians) began unionizing and demanding an eight hour workday. On May 1, 1886, more than 30,000 of them struck.
What started as peaceful protests ended in disaster, with a massacre of both police and workers and a trial that ended with four innocent men being executed.
The story marks the subsequent growth of labor unions and May 1, 1886, as the date the eight hour work day we take for granted became standard, an improvement paid for by the deaths of over a dozen people. However, for many Americans at the time, the “Haymarket incident” and the contentious public trials that followed sullied May 1, forever tying the day to immigrant anarchists, socialists, and other “radical” groups that stood outside the mainstream of American society.
However, the workers’ struggle is commemorated in almost every major industrial nation on May 1st as International Workers’ Day.
Why isn’t May Day our Labor Day? Back in America after the riot, half of the American Labor movement observed May 1 as Labor Day, while more moderate trade unions observed the first Monday in September. President Grover Cleveland proclaimed the latter date a holiday in September in 1894, removing it by four months from its more radical history. Then, the Soviets designated May 1 as the anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917, so we reacted, with our conflation of workers’ rights with communism, by changing that date to “Americanization Day“. In 1949, it became “Loyalty Day” and in 1955, Eisenhower declared it “Loyalty Day” (also “Law” Day). It became an official recurring holiday in 1958.
Since then, every president has made some sort of proclamation, bringing their take on national pride and American values. For those playing Trump BINGO, you will be doing well if you still had “limited government” spaces open on your board as well as “socialist“.
Now we live in a time of diminishing unions and workdays that never seem to end. Trump has decreased labor protections, rolled back worker safety and weakened federal unions during his presidency. Time to go old-school on May Day.