The United States doesn’t celebrate May Day as an official national holiday, setting itself apart from the rest of the world’s democracies. Elsewhere, May 1 is International Workers’ Day, observed with speeches, rallies, and demonstrations. This celebration of working-class solidarity originated in the U.S labor movement in the United States and soon spread around the world, but it never earned official recognition in this country. Since 2006, however, American unions and immigrant rights activists have resurrected May 1 as a day of protest.
The original May Day was born of the movement for an eight-hour workday. After the Civil War, unregulated capitalism ran rampant in America. It was the Gilded Age, a time of merger mania, increasing concentration of wealth, and growing political influence by corporate power brokers known as Robber Barons. New technologies made possible new industries, which generated great riches for the fortunate few, but at the expense of workers who worked long hours, under dangerous conditions, for little pay.
A flier notifying people of a rally in support of striking workers at Haymarket Square in Chicago. The demonstration is considered the origin of the May 1 labor holiday.
As the gap between the rich and other Americans widened dramatically, workers began to resist in a variety of ways. The first major wave of labor unions pushed employers to limit the workday to ten, then eight, hours. The 1877 strike by tens of thousands of railroad, factory and mine workers—which shut down the nation’s major industries and was brutally suppressed by the corporations and their friends in government—was the first of many mass actions to demand living wages and humane working conditions. By 1884, the campaign had gained enough momentum that the predecessor to the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution at its annual meeting, “that eight hours shall constitute legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”
On the appointed date, unions and radical groups orchestrated strikes and large-scale demonstrations in cities across the country. More than 500,000 workers went on strike or marched in solidarity and many more people protested in the streets. In Chicago, a labor stronghold, at least 30,000 workers struck. Rallies and parades across the city more than doubled that number, and the May 1 demonstrations continued for several days. The protests were mostly nonviolent, but they included skirmishes with strikebreakers, company-hired thugs and police. On May 3, at a rally outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company factory, police fired on the crowd, killing at least two workers. The next day, at a rally at Haymarket Square to protest the shootings, police moved in to clear the crowd. Someone threw a bomb at the police, killing at least one officer. Another seven policemen were killed during the ensuing riot, and police gunfire killed at least four protesters and injured many others. After a controversial investigation, seven anarchists were sentenced to death for murder, while another was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The anarchists won global notoriety, being seen as martyrs by many radicals and reformers, who viewed the trial and executions as politically motivated.
In 2001, unions and immigrant rights groups in Los Angeles resurrected May Day as an occasion for protest. The first few years saw rallies with several hundred participants, but in 2006 the numbers skyrocketed. That year, millions of people in over 100 cities, including more than a million in Los Angeles, 200,000 in New York and 300,000 in Chicago, participated in May Day demonstrations. The huge turnout was catalyzed by a bill, sponsored by Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wisconsin) and passed by the House the previous December, that would have classified as a felon anyone who helped undocumented immigrants enter or remain in the United States. In many cities, the protest, which organizers termed the “Great American Boycott,” triggered walkouts by high school students and shut down businesses that depended on immigrant workers. Since then, immigrant workers and their allies have adopted May Day as an occasion for protest.
America is now in the midst of a new Gilded Age with a new group of corporate Robber Barons, many of them operating on a global scale. The top of the income scale has the biggest concentration of income and wealth since 1928. Several decades of corporate-backed assaults on unions have left only 7 percent of private sector employees with union cards. More than half of America’s 15 million union members now work for government (representing 37 percent of all government employees), so business groups and conservative politicians have targeted public sector unions for destruction. The past year’s attacks on teachers, cops, firefighters, human service workers and other public sector workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere — the most ferocious anti-union crusade in decades — have catalyzed a tremendous sense of urgency among union workers and millions of other Americans who’ve seen their standard of living plummet while the richest Americans and big business plunder the economy.
This blog was adapted from Peter Dreier, “Occupy Activists Resurrect May Day for Americans,” The Nation, April 27, 2012.