Today is May Day. There are many Americans, including many on the American left, who have a somewhat skewed view of the history of May 1st as a workers’ holiday. (There are even more Americans who have no idea what May Day is at all, and a few old and cranky conservatives who know the holiday as “Loyalty Day.”) The idea is that it was called into being by early socialists and anarchists in the United States on May 1st, 1886, and that it spread worldwide in remembrance of the anarchist Haymarket Martyrs who were falsely persecuted for throwing bombs at the original May Day protest in Chicago that year and later hung for their political beliefs.
That all has an element of truth to it, but according to Prof. Priscilla Murolo – a historian at Sarah Lawrence College and author of From The Folks Who Brought You The Weekend: A Short Illustrated History of Labor in the United States – it’s a bit more complicated than that.
It seems that May Day as a labor holiday (its “Red Root” according to Wikipedia, as opposed to its “Green Root” as a pagan European holiday) was initiated not by the large and basically left-wing labor federation of the 1880s, the Knights of Labor, but rather by its far smaller and technically more conservative sibling, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions.
In September 1882, the New York City Central Labor Council of the FOTLU called a “labor holiday” parade and 30,000 men and women marched for labor rights. Quoting Murolo “Many marchers carried banners and placards emblazoned with the slogan ‘Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Sleep, Eight Hours for What We Will.'” This holiday quickly spread around the U.S. and eventually became the official American Labor Day. The government endorsement and its later use as an anti-communist alternative to May Day has kind of destroyed its street cred among left militants in the U.S. But Labor Day has legitimate radical roots and should be reclaimed by the American left. And it would be a mistake to forget that the International Workingmen’s Association, the storied socialist First International, called for the eight-hour day at its founding convention in 1866; so doubtless there were some active socialists in the ranks of FOTLU 16 years later.
The FOTLU continued to push for the eight-hour day, not through legislative action, but through direct action. In 1884, the FOTLU Convention passed an amazing resolution by the standards of modern national labor conferences that stated “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” The admonition to the U.S. government and the American ruling class was clear. American working people were calling a nationwide general strike on May Day in just over a year. And 350,000 working men and women at 11,000 establishments did just that. Over 65,000 of them hit the streets in Chicago alone, striking fear into the hearts of the city’s capitalists, and resulting in the reaction that led to the deaths of anarchist strike leaders Albert Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel and Louis Lingg.
The Knights of Labor’s national leadership did not back the strike call, but its local assemblies did which ironically made the fight for the eight-hour day the Knights’ largest campaign. It also led to the organization’s demise, when in months following the events of May 1886, the leadership refused to back continued strike calls by its locals. This emboldened employers who proceeded to crush Knights assemblies in most industries. Its membership plummeted from 750,000 in 1886 to 220,000 in 1888. Interestingly, the last Knights local assembly was a Boston movie projectionists union that merged into another union in 1949 (area projectionist unionists now in the Industrial Workers of the World should take heart in this).
Meanwhile, in December 1886, the FOTLU voted to expand its mandate and become the American Federation of Labor – which soldiers on to this day as America’s largest labor federation, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations.
So why bring this history up? Two reasons. Many of the militant activists behind the original May Day, in both labor federations of the day, were immigrants. Most of the Haymarket Martyrs were immigrants. So May Day in the U.S. in addition to being one of two labor days, must also be recognized as an immigrants’ day. In the last few years, May Day has seen a revival nationwide precisely because immigrants have made it so. Many of them hailing from countries that celebrate the day as the official workers holiday when the country of its birth doesn’t.
May Day is now inexorably tied to the fight for immigrants’ rights in the U.S. So all Open Media Boston viewers are encouraged to get out and march for labor and immigrant rights today starting with a 4 p.m. Rally at the Boston Common Bandstand, and a 5:30 p.m. March to Copley Square.
The second reason will be a little more obscure to many, but worth mentioning nonetheless. The house of American labor is again split in two, as it has been on a number of occasions. Three years ago, led by the large and growing Service Employees International Union, a new labor federation called Change to Win left the AFL-CIO. The CtW platform sounded more progressive than the AFL platform. There was much talk of pouring money into organizing and vastly expanding union ranks. But that has not really come to pass. If anything, CtW is coming to be seen as merely a creature of the SEIU which in turn is seen as a top-down undemocratic union that is making some uncomfortably accomodationist deals with American capitalists in the name of “organizing.” At the same time, the weakened AFL is looking more grassroots and more progressive in spots – particularly in member-unions like the Communication Workers of America.
Of course, neither federation is uniform in its political orientation or organizing strategy. And that’s the point here. The way forward for the American left and the working people of America – immigrant and non-immigrant – is not to put all our cards in any one labor organization (or political party for that matter). Instead it is to broadly map out what we really collectively need and want for better lives and a better society, and go out and demand it from the powers-that-be. Working and middle-class activists fought an ultimately successful, if messy and still contested, fight for the eight-hour day in the 1800s and 1900s. None of the labor federations of that era were solely responsible for the victory, and many unnamed political tendencies and organizations and individuals deserve credit as well. Ultimately, the form of their organizing was never as important as their message. And therefore, what feminists in Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement pointed out to women in the 1970s in their book Feminist Revolution holds just as true for working people everywhere today – “go for what you really want.”
So everyone have a great International Workers Day. Get out and demonstrate (and party) for a better America and a better world. Keep your eyes on the prize. One day we’ll make every day May Day.
Related Story: Boston Celebrates May Day