Reclaiming May Day, Workers' Day Born in U.S.

April 27, 2012
Milwaukee 2011 May Day march
UE members were part of the crowd of 100,000 for Milwaukee's 2011 May Day march.

The tradition of May 1 as the international holiday of the working class began in the United States, but for many decades was lost to the U.S. working class. Beginning in 2006, with mass marches and work stoppages by immigrant workers, working people in this country have begun to reclaim their day.

The roots of May Day as a workers' day of protest and solidarity go back to Chicago in 1886. But May Day has been a festival for working people since long before that. May Day was a holiday for the peasants of Europe going back to ancient times. The name of the month itself comes from the goddess Maia, who to the ancient Greeks was the mother of all the gods, even Zeus. May Day was a celebration of spring, of planting, of nature's reawakening after winter, a feast of rebirth and fertility and love. May Day was celebrated with food and wine, music, and dancing around the Maypole.


The modern May Day was born in the struggle of workers, especially in North America, for a shorter workday. With the rise of industrial capitalism, employers imposed working days of 12, 14, even 16 hours, and in many cases a seven-day workweek. Throughout the 19th century, the struggle to shorten the hours of work was a central concern of workers trying to form unions and gain some control over their lives.

Before the Civil War there were efforts by workers to form unions in the U.S. and struggles for shorter hours. These efforts were scattered and intermittent, and usually aimed at getting the workday down to 10 hours. A mass movement demanding an eight-hour workday appeared after the war, and to a great extent because of the war. The Civil War had become a war of labor liberation through the actions of the enslaved African American workers, who conducted what W.E.B. Du Bois called "the general strike" -- stopping work and leaving the plantations en masse when the Union Army approached. Their actions changed the nature of the war and forced Lincoln to proclaim the emancipation of the slaves.

Workers in the North -- white workers, many of whom fought in the war -- were deeply affected by "seeing that the impossible had happened... slaves managing to emancipate themselves," as historian David Roediger told the UE NEWS earlier this year. "And it called into being the modern labor movement." This was evident in 1867 to Karl Marx in London, who wrote in Capital, his great critical analysis of capitalism: "In the United States of America, every independent workers' movement was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in a white skin where it is branded in a black skin. But a new life immediately arose out of the death of slavery. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hour agitation, that ran with the speed of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific."


In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which two years later renamed itself the American Federation of Labor (AFL), voted to call for strikes on May 1, 1886 to force employers across the country to agree "that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor." May Day 1886 indeed brought a national wave of strikes, involving some 500,000 workers in cities and small towns. Nowhere was the movement stronger than in Chicago. Some 90,000 workers took to Chicago's streets that day, and a major portion of them were immigrants -- German, Irish, Czech, Polish, British and other nationalities. The strike shut down most factories, but one major employer -- the McCormick Harvester plant -- had locked out its union employees since February and was operating with strikebreakers. One the third day of the citywide strike, police opened fire on 500 workers protesting outside the McCormick plant against the presence of scabs. The police killed four workers and injured many more.

Outraged by the murders, workers gathered in a mass rally the following evening, May 4, at Haymarket Square. The crowd of some 3,000 listened to speeches by movement organizers. Near the end of the final speech, by labor activist Samuel Fielden, 180 police advanced in military formation on the crowd that had now dwindled to around 200. As the cops moved on the speaker's stand, a bomb flew though the air and exploded in front of the police, killing one instantly and wounding dozens. The police regrouped and opened fire on the crowd, killing one and injuring many. Several officers were fatally wounded in the melee of "friendly fire" from their own force.

The next day the mayor declared martial law. Hundreds of militant workers were arrested, homes and union offices were raided. Eventually eight men were chosen to stand trial, most of whom had not even been present at Haymarket on the evening of May 4. But all of them were effective labor organizers, and therefore hated by the ruling class of Chicago. Six of the defendants were immigrants (five German, one British) - which aided the effort to demonize them.

None of the accused were directly charged with murder, since there was no evidence connecting them to the bomb. They were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and were put on trial for their ideas and their radical labor activism. The trial was a travesty, with fabricated evidence, several jurors who declared the defendants guilty before the trial began, and no workers in the jury. Newspaper headlines in Chicago and across the country screamed for blood, and the trial's outcome was obvious in advance. All the accused were convicted, all but one sentenced to death, the other -- Oscar Neebe -- to 15 years in prison. The sentences of two of the accused -- Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden -- were later commuted to life in prison. Seven years later a new Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned them all, declaring that they "were not proven guilty of the crime," but were instead victims of a biased judge and a packed jury. Neebe, Schwab and Fielden were finally released as a result of Altgeld's pardon. But it was too late for the other five: on November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fisher, August Spies, and George Engel were hung. Louis Lingg had robbed the hangman by committing suicide in his jail cell.

The Haymarket affair, and the execution of the Haymarket martyrs, was a huge setback to the labor movement and to the campaign for the eight-hour workday in the United States. Labor activists across the country were arrested as "conspirators," and militant workers were now called "bomb throwers" as well as "communists." In 1890 the AFL again called May Day strikes for the eight-hour day, and AFL President Samuel Gompers put out the call for labor movements around the world to do the same. As a result, May Day became the international workers' day of celebration, protest and rebellion. It most countries May Day has retained this significance.

But in the U.S., businessmen and politicians over the years stole May Day from the working class and largely erased its memory. Pennsylvania in 1939 declared May 1 "Americanism Day." Congress in 1947 declared it "Loyalty Day," then, changing its mind in 1958, renamed it "Law Day." During the Cold War, when the Soviet government celebrated May Day with an annual military parade through Red Square, AFL-CIO leaders -- many of whom probably knew better -- pretended that May Day was a dangerous foreign tradition that had nothing to do with workers in this country.


On May 1, 2006, immigrant workers brought back May Day as an American workers' holiday and a day to fight for justice. Following mass protests in across the country in March 2006, against a Republican bill in Congress to make it a felony to be an immigrant without documents, organizers decided on May Day as the date to continue the struggle. Over 1.5 million people took part in May Day demonstrations that year -- one of the single largest days of protest in U.S. history. The biggest events were in Chicago, Milwaukee and Los Angeles, and UE members marched in each of those cities. Many also participated in a general strike by refusing to conduct business, go to work, or attend school. May Day marches continued in 2007 and the years that followed.

"For the past several years Milwaukee has had the largest May Day march anywhere in the country," says UE Western Region President Carl Rosen. It has been a convergence of a strong immigrant rights movement, led by the workers' center Voces de la Frontera, and especially in 2011, the statewide fight to defend labor rights. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke at Milwaukee's May Day march last year in which 100,000 people participated.

Lauro Bonilla, president of UE Local 1107 at Milwaukee's Tramont plant, has been part of the May Day march organizing committee for several years, and expects a big crowd this year. To maximize turnout, this year's Milwaukee march will be held on Sunday, April 29. "We hope for 100,000 again this year because of the fight to recall Scott Walker, as well as immigrant rights," says Bonilla. "It's a strong tradition in Milwaukee and it's for all of labor. But it's very special for the Spanish-speaking people." Carl Rosen concludes that "May Day has been fully reclaimed in Wisconsin."

In 2004 Chicago union leaders unveiled a monument at Haymarket Square, a sculpture by local artist Mary Brogger representing the wagon on which the speakers at the May 4, 1886 rally stood. In a ceremony each May Day since then, a permanent plaque is added to the base of the statue, with a message from a union in another country. In 2010 a delegation of 74 members of the Japanese labor federation Zenroren visited Chicago, hosted by UE, and Zenroren Vice President Tamiko Komatsu dedicated a plaque. This year's plaque will be presented by members of Mexico's Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT.)

Carl Rosen welcomes these developments in his hometown. "Even just a few years ago Haymarket was still considered 'off limits' by much of the labor leadership in the U.S., as too radical or dangerous. But the labor movement has found its bearings and realized that this is an important part of our history." He credits the big immigrant rights marches of 2006 and 2007 for helping "to resurrect May Day as a protest day on behalf of working people in general and the labor movement." Last year, he says, many top national labor leaders from around the country came to the rededication of the refurbished Haymarket memorial in Forest Home Cemetery, at the grave of the Haymarket martyrs. For decades, Rosen recalls, "almost no mainstream U.S. labor leader would go near that monument, even though it is the first thing that international labor visitors to Chicago always want to see."

UE members in Chicago, especially Latino members, have been active in the May Day events of the past six years. "We marched in 2006," says Local 1110 President Armando Robles. But after Local 1110 members became national labor heroes by occupying Republic Windows and Doors, Robles was asked to speak at the 2009 rally. "I told the people that we have to be more aggressive in taking action against immigration raids." Since his call for action, the immigrant rights movement has conducted civil disobedience at federal immigration offices.

Besides the positive example set by the immigrant movement, Carl Rosen believes the labor movement's recent embrace of May Day and Haymarket results from "the kind of attacks that labor's been under in recent years. That's made labor leaders a lot less afraid of attaching themselves to their more militant past, because they realize increasingly that we're going to need a greater level of militancy to survive and prosper."


Learn about Haymarket in Labor's Untold Story, by Herbert M. Morais and Richard O. Boyer. This book is one of the best general histories of the U.S. labor movement, from the Civil War to the 1950s, and is published and sold by UE in both Spanish and English editions. Your local union can order the book from the UE National Office. The price is $9.00 for UE members and $15.00 to the general public. Pages 91-104 deal with "the Haymarket Affair."

Haymarket Scrapbook, 125th Anniversary Edition (Charles H. Kerr Publishing and AK Press, 2012, 266 pages) is a large and beautiful collection of articles, speeches and other writings about Haymarket and its impact. It is lavishly illustrated with sketches, engraved photos, reproductions of leaflets, posters, and magazine covers from the late 1800s. This is an expanded version of the 1986 original, edited by David Roediger and the late Franklin Rosemont. You can purchase the book here.

Death in the Haymarket (2006, Anchor Books, 382 pages), by University of Massachusetts labor historian James Green, is an exciting and thorough account of Haymarket, putting it in the context of the post-Civil War social history of Chicago.

Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (1989, Verso Press, 380 pages). Written by two of our best labor historians, David Roediger and the late Philip S. Foner, this is the most compete history of the struggles to reduce the hours of labor, which gave birth to labor's May Day.

"The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day", (1986) is a short essay by Peter Linebaugh, history professor at the University of Toledo that connects the ancient "green" tradition of May Day with the modern May Day, the "red" labor holiday that grew from the blood of the Haymarket martyrs. Read it online at this link.


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