May Day 2005

by Bill Onasch


This Sunday is May Day, a date commemorated for various reasons, by varied causes, over millennia. For more than a century it has been observed as International Labor Day. For hundreds of millions of workers around the world it is an official holiday and millions of workers will march in parades, cheer at rallies, and gather at feasts.

But in the country that gave rise to this most important celebration of the global working class movement there will be only token observances. Along with all the wealth we have produced American bosses have also robbed us of our proud working class heritage.

In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada—the lineal ancestor of the American Federation of Labor—passed a resolution, introduced by George Edmonston, founder of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, calling for stepped-up militant action to achieve the standard of an eight-hour workday: “Resolved...that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”

The first May Day, in 1886, saw peaceful strikes and rallies involving hundreds of thousands of workers in communities across the country. Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, speaking to a rally of more than ten thousand in New York’s Union Square told the crowd that “May 1st would be forever remembered as a second declaration of independence.”

The biggest of these first May Day actions was in Chicago, drawing 90,000 workers—nearly half of them already on strike or locked-out. The packinghouse bosses promptly granted an eight-hour day. But other bosses, led by Cyrus McCormick—who founded what was to become International Harvester (now Navistar), and the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest newspaper,” the Chicago Tribune—set out to crush the fledgling unions, and massive fights continued.

On May 3 the police attacked a workers march on the way to reinforce the picket line at the McCormick Reaper Works. Four workers were shot dead and many were injured. A rally was called the next day in Haymarket Square to denounce this police murder of peaceful protesters. When cops moved in to try to disperse this gathering somebody threw a bomb into the police formation. Then the cops opened fire on the rally. At the end, seven cops and nine workers were dead and dozens were wounded.

No evidence of who actually threw the bomb was ever uncovered. But eight leaders of the May Day movement were framed by a prosecutor, who told the jury: “Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands that follow them...Convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and save our institutions, our society.”

The eight were convicted. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were sentenced to life imprisonment. A few years later a new Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, after reviewing the facts of the case, pardoned the three still alive—as well as posthumously exonerating the Haymarket Martyrs.

These struggles inspired the workers movement throughout the world. The founding congress of the [Second] Socialist International adopted an appeal by Gompers for a “great international demonstration”on May 1, 1890. The response was impressive throughout Europe and parts of Latin America. A half-million assembled in London’s Hyde Park. By 1904 May Day had become the official, institutionalized global worker holiday.

But as the mainstream leadership of American unions shifted from their class struggle roots to a class collaborationist perspective, international solidarity withered and the celebration of May Day in the United States declined. During the Cold War, May Day was red-baited as a “communist” holiday. The youthful indiscretions of Gompers and Edmonston have been expunged from our official history.

Our holiday, we are told, is supposed to be the first Monday in September, as sanctioned by Congress in 1894—signed into law by Grover Cleveland in the same year he used the army to break the Pullman Strike and send its leader, Eugene Victor Debs, to his first prison term.

Personally, I’ve always celebrated both holidays. But the official Labor Day in September has become a lot like the traditional English Boxing Day, the first workday after Christmas, when the grateful aristocracy would give their servants a Christmas present (a “box”) and a day off in Christian appreciation of their labor. Our bosses tell most of us—except for many in service industries—to knock off for “our” day in September and take the family to the lake. Few unions try to organize Labor Day events of any kind anymore.

Our loss of class identity, our ignorance of our class heritage, is no small part of the crisis our labor movement finds itself in today. We won’t get far without reclaiming our history and traditions, without reasserting our class pride. We should paraphrase the slogan popularized by feminists in the 1970s: “We are workers, hear us roar!” What better time to start than May Day?

(I hope those of you in the Kansas City area will join us at the Labor Party May Day Picnic Sunday in Macken Park. If it rains, we’ll move to Tony Saper’s house, nearby at 2113 Erie, North Kansas City. Stories will be told and songs will be sung over brats, beans, and beverages.)

Celebrating May Day this year will be a step in the right direction on the path that must be cleared to escape from the wilderness that imprisons us.

Happy May Day to all!
Bill Onasch, webmaster, kclabor.org