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
of these first May Day actions was in
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
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
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
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
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
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